Czechs Agree to Talks on U.S. Missile Shield

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 29, 2007

BERLIN, March 28 -- The Czech government announced Wednesday that it will open formal negotiations with the United States to build part of a missile defense shield, even as opposition to the idea has stiffened elsewhere in Europe.

Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek told reporters in Prague that his country "recognizes the threats against which the defense shield should be set."

The proposed U.S. defense system, designed to shoot down ballistic missiles launched from countries such as Iran and North Korea, has drawn especially heavy criticism in Germany. Although Chancellor Angela Merkel has remained noncommittal, other members of her coalition government, as well as opposition politicians, have questioned whether Europe should play any role in development of the shield.

Last week, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that the defense system could divide Europe and antagonize Russia, which has also objected.

The United States wants to construct a radar base in the Czech Republic and base 10 missile interceptors in Poland as the East European cornerstone of its proposed missile shield. The plan remains controversial in both countries -- critics worry that participation would invite retaliation from Russia or others -- but leading lawmakers have said they are leaning toward participation.

On Wednesday, the Czech government took a firm step toward working out a deal, saying it had approved the start of formal negotiations on the radar base.

Russia has said it considers the missile defense system a potential security threat, questioning whether the unarmed missile interceptors could be replaced by warheads in the future. Speaking at a security conference in Munich in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the proposed shield "could provoke nothing less than the beginning of a new nuclear era."

U.S. officials have tried to assuage Russia's concerns, as well as those of European allies. After the Czech government's announcement Wednesday, President Bush called Putin in an attempt to persuade him that the missile interceptor was defensive in nature and not aimed at Russia, according to the Kremlin.

The phone call apparently succeeded in cooling the dispute, at least temporarily. "The U.S. president's expression of readiness for detailed discussion on this subject with the Russian side, and for cooperation in the interests of joint security, was received with satisfaction," the Kremlin said in a statement.

Meanwhile, a top Pentagon official visited Berlin to make a similar case to German officials. Eric S. Edelman, the undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters that the United States needed to do a better job of explaining the defense system's merits.

"There are legitimate questions that people have, and we want to approach this in a very open and transparent manner," he said. "We bear a little bit of the burden here in not coming out of the gate as quickly as we should have with information."

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