Split Over Russia Grows in Europe

President Medvedev warns he may place missiles near Eastern Europe.
President Medvedev warns he may place missiles near Eastern Europe. (By Ivan Sekretarev -- Associated Press)
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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 8, 2008

BERLIN, Nov. 7 -- Russia sent President-elect Barack Obama a message this week when it threatened to "neutralize" the proposed U.S. missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. But analysts said the tough talk from Moscow had another aim as well: to exploit a festering divide within Europe.

Many Eastern European countries have become increasingly alarmed over what they consider Russia's aggressive attempts to re-create a sphere of influence over satellite states of the former Soviet Union. Such concerns soared after Russia sent troops into Georgia in August, sparking a brief war.

The worries worsened Wednesday when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the Kremlin would move short-range missiles into Kaliningrad, a sliver of Russian territory on the Baltic Sea bordering Poland and Lithuania, if the United States proceeds to base parts of a missile-defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus called the Russian threat "beyond comprehension."

In contrast, Germany, France and other countries in Western Europe play down any security risks posed by Moscow and instead see Russia foremost as a lucrative -- if unpredictable -- trading partner. These countries, which former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld once derided as "Old Europe," generally consider the U.S. missile defense project to be an unnecessary irritant.

Peter Struck, a former German defense minister and now parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats, one of Germany's two ruling political parties, called Medvedev's speech "understandable" and blamed the Bush administration for provoking Moscow. In a radio interview, he said he hoped Washington would soften its "intransigent position" on the missile shield.

As a protest over the war in Georgia, the European Union withdrew in August from negotiations with Russia over a "strategic partnership" agreement. On Wednesday, just hours before Medvedev gave his speech in Moscow, E.U. officials reversed their position and indicated they would soon resume talks. The shift was led by French and German officials who argued that engagement with Russia was more likely to succeed than isolation.

In Brussels on Friday, during a European summit on the global financial crisis, French President Nicolas Sarkozy defended the diplomatic approach. He said that he had already raised objections to Medvedev's speech but that fueling public tensions with Russia would be counterproductive. To "raise questions, it's better to see one another and talk," Sarkozy said.

In Eastern Europe, however, some leaders have lobbied for a harder line. In a joint statement this week, the presidents of Poland and Lithuania said negotiations should remain frozen because Russia has not lived up to an E.U.-brokered agreement to defuse the military conflict in Georgia.

"There is a general feeling that the Western allies are too tolerant, especially France," said Oldrich Cerny, director of the Prague Security Studies Institute and a former Czech national security adviser.

The U.S. military says the shield is designed to track and shoot down any ballistic missiles fired at Europe or the United States from a "rogue state," such as Iran.

The system would be built on several legs, with components in the United States, Britain and Greenland. More controversial has been the Pentagon's effort to place 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic.

Moscow has objected vehemently to the plan, saying that the system could be converted into an offensive weapon and aimed at Russia someday. U.S. officials say that Russia's fears are groundless and that the shield would be overwhelmed by Russia's enormous stockpile of nuclear and conventional missiles.

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