By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007
ROSTOCK, Germany, June 7 -- After days of escalating rhetoric about missile defense, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise offer to President Bush on Thursday, proposing that Russia join with the United States and some of its European allies to operate a shield intended against missile threats from Iran.
Meeting with Bush during the summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, Putin suggested that a Soviet-era radar installation that Russia operates in the Caspian Sea country of Azerbaijan could feed real-time data into the planned system.
Bush afterward described Putin's offer as "interesting" -- the United States has been pressing Russia to take part in such a system since the 1990s. Both presidents said Russian and U.S. military and diplomatic officials would meet to discuss the idea further.
Putin's gesture came as leaders from European countries and Japan backed down from proposals that the summit endorse specific cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. They embraced Bush's proposal to instead put in motion a process toward unspecified "substantial cuts" in emissions that scientists blame for global warming.
The agreement says the G-8 countries will "seriously" consider cutting emissions in half by 2050, but it sets no mandatory goals for all. Under the plan, nonbinding goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions would be determined by meetings of officials from the world's top 15 polluting nations by the end of next year.
Putin's offer on missile defense followed numerous angry statements by him and other senior officials in Moscow that the system would threaten Russian security and upset the regional balance of power. Putin at one point warned that he might re-aim some of his country's nuclear missiles at targets in Europe if the United States went ahead with the plans.
After their meeting at the summit, being held at the German seaside resort of Heiligendamm, Putin said Russia would no longer consider re-targeting its missiles.
"On the contrary," he said, "this will create necessary grounds for common work." Putin said that by using the radar station in Azerbaijan, the planned system would be able to cover all of Europe "without exception."
"We have an understanding, as well as common threats," Putin said as he stood with Bush. "But we have differences. The difference is ways and means in which we can overcome these threats."
Bush said that "there are a lot of people who don't like it when Russia and the United States argue, and it creates tensions. . . . It's much better to work together than it is to create tensions."
The U.S. plan would place 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic. White House national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, briefing reporters after the Bush-Putin meeting, said Putin agreed with a suggestion from Bush to have experts from both sides examine the situation with "everything on the table."
What would happen with the Polish base is unclear. Russian officials say there is no present need to deploy interceptor missiles, because Iran, North Korea and other potentially hostile small powers have no missiles that could reach Europe or the United States.
"It is too early to speak about that," Putin's spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said when asked about the interceptor missiles in a conference call with reporters.
U.S. officials, however, said they want to deploy interceptor missiles as soon as possible.
"These are long lead-time items, and it would take time to get them deployed," Hadley said. "And, secondly, we've been surprised many times by the extent to which countries have been able to dramatically increase the range of their missiles in a way that was faster than our intelligence community predicted."
According to the Web site Globalsecurity.org, the Qabala station in Azerbaijan began operating in 1988. With a 16-story radar building, it can track ballistic missile trajectories in the Southern Hemisphere and much of Asia, and is a critical link in Russia's early warning system.
The current lease, which expires in 2012, calls for Russia to make yearly payments of $7 million to Azerbaijan.
Putin said he had talked Wednesday about his proposal with Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, whom he described as amenable to the idea.
"The president of Azerbaijan stressed that he will only be glad to contribute to the cause of global security and stability," Putin said.
Staff writer Walter Pincus in Washington contributed to this report.