By JENNIFER LOVEN
The Associated Press
Friday, June 1, 2007; 7:30 PM
WASHINGTON -- President Bush defended his plan to build a missile defense system in Russia's backyard, even though it has sparked fresh tensions in the already frayed Washington-Moscow relationship. Bush suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to get over it. Russia has reacted to the new system by unleashing several rounds of harsh rhetoric against the United States.
"The Cold War is over," Bush told foreign reporters in an interview that previewed an eight-day trip to Europe next week. "We're now into the 21st century, where we need to deal with the true threats, which are threats of radical extremists who will kill to advance an ideology, and the threats of proliferation."
Bush's eight-day trip, which begins Monday, will include meetings with Putin during and on the sidelines of a summit in Germany of leading industrialized nations. Hoping to normalize relations, the president also this week invited Putin to come to his family's summer compound on the Maine coast July 1-2, a month after the Group of Eight meeting.
But Bush also is making stops before and after the summit that could further enflame his Russian counterpart. Bush is visiting Poland and the Czech Republic, former Soviet satellite states that are now NATO members, where Bush wants to base parts of the missile defense system.
The president said in the Thursday interviews that part of the reason for his trip was "to allay people's fears" about the system. "He thinks it's aimed at him. It's not," Bush said of Putin.
Instead, he said, the system is meant to protect NATO allies against hostile regimes. "Russia is not hostile. Russia is a friend."
U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have recently stepped up diplomacy with the Russians to argue that Iran is the system's target. The West suspects Tehran's nuclear program is aimed not at producing energy but atomic bombs.
"I'm deeply concerned about Iran having a nuclear weapon that could fly toward Europe, or, for that matter, toward any other allies," Bush said. "And we don't want to ever have ourselves in a position where the world could become blackmailed. And, therefore, one way to deal with this issue is through a missile defense system."
The president voiced no regrets about sparking the fracas with Russia over his decision. "We think it's the right thing to do."
Putin said Thursday that tests of new Russian missiles were a response to the planned deployment of U.S. missile defense installations and other forces in Europe. Russia has not bought the argument that the U.S. system is aimed elsewhere.
In a clear reference to the United States, Putin harshly criticized "imperialism" in global affairs and warned that Russia will strengthen its military potential to maintain a global strategic balance.
"It wasn't us who initiated a new round of arms race," Putin said after Kremlin talks with Greek President Karolos Papoulias.
Bush said in an interview Friday with BNT of Bulgaria that he wants to diffuse what he called "the latest flare-up" and is "working hard to .... prevent any escalation of rhetoric."
But he also said that he reserves the right to take Russia to task when needed and is "not afraid to so so."
A case in point is another recent dispute, over Kosovo's desire for indepedence.
A phone conversation earlier in the week between Bush and Putin led some in the region to believe the U.S. president had promised to "to rediscuss Kosovo's future." Bush sought to lay that to rest in an interview with Vision Plus TV of Albania. He said he told Putin that "we feel strongly that the Ahtisaari plan is the right way to go," referring to a U.N. resolution supporting independence for Kosovo under international supervision. Russia has hinted it would veto the measure supported by the U.S. and Europe.
On his trip, Bush also is traveling to Albania, where the discussion involving neighboring Kosovo is of great interest, and Bulgaria. He is stopping in Rome, where he will meet Pope Benedict XVI for the first time. And at the G-8, the president has scheduled separate sit-downs with outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair and with France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in addition to Putin.
Relations between the United States and Russia, so warm in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, have been sinking for years.
Washington has become increasingly concerned about backsliding on democracy and human rights in Russia under Putin's leadership and about worries that Russia uses its vast energy wealth for political purposes.
Moscow, meanwhile, views U.S. activity in its former sphere of influence with growing suspicion.
Notably, Bush referred in the interview to Washington-Moscow ties as "a complex relationship," the same term he repeatedly uses to describe the status of the U.S.'s tricky relations with China. "We've got some areas of agreement and some areas of disagreement."
Under "areas of disagreement," he listed Putin's claims of democratic advances in Russia ("We have got some questions about that") and Moscow's harsh reaction to Estonia's decision to move a memorial to Soviet soldiers killed during World War II ("It sent a confusing signal to us") and Kosovo. Under the common ground heading, he listed cooperation on Iran, North Korea and weapons proliferation generally.