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Putin Warns of Missiles Pointed at EU

Ratcheting up the rhetoric just days before U.S. talks, President Vladimir Putin warned that the military would aim its missiles at targets in Europe once again if the United States builds a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.

Putin also cautioned that the U.S. plans raised the risk of a nuclear conflict.

The president's comments, made to European media ahead of this week's G8 summit in Germany, came after senior U.S. diplomats indicated that U.S. President George W. Bush would take Putin to task at the summit over what they called serious setbacks to democracy and media freedoms in Russia.

Kremlin officials suggested that Putin would defend Russia's record to Bush. Lawmakers downplayed the war of words. But with Putin's latest remarks on the missile defense shield, it appeared that he going on the offensive ahead of his meeting with Bush at the three-day summit, which starts Wednesday.

In an interview with Italy's Corriere della Sera published Sunday, Putin was asked whether the U.S. plans would force the military to direct its missiles at locations in Europe, as during the Cold War. "Naturally, yes," Putin said. "If the American nuclear potential grows in European territory, we have to give ourselves new targets in Europe. It is up to our military to define these targets, in addition to defining the choice between ballistic and cruise missiles."

Putin told Germany's Der Spiegel in an interview to be published Monday that the U.S. shield would "increase the possibility of unleashing a nuclear conflict." He said Washington was "forcing a reaction" from Moscow.

The president raised the specter of a new arms race Thursday, saying the U.S. plans had prompted a test earlier in the week of a new multiple-warhead missile.

David Kramer, a top Russia expert at the U.S. State Department, gave a speech late last week that described Russia as bullying its neighbors while silencing political opponents and suppressing individual rights at home.

Recent Kremlin actions "reflect negative trends on human rights and democracy inside Russia itself," Kramer said in the speech approved by the White House before the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs, The Associated Press reported.

"Suppression of genuine opposition, abridgement of the right to protest, constriction of civil society and the decline of media freedom are all serious setbacks," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday criticized Russia's human rights record and said the country needed to work with the West.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged that the atmosphere before the G8 summit was far from ideal but that the frictions should not be blown out of proportion.

"Not everything is smooth, and there are issues on which we completely disagree," Peskov said. "But we are ready to listen, and President Vladimir Putin is always happy to give the necessary explanations if there are misunderstandings."

He said criticism of Russia's human rights record "is often highly exaggerated and most frequently incorrect." He said Russians have the right to criticize the government, and "only those who act illegally and threaten public order" are persecuted. "This situation applies to all countries, and not every country is perfect," he added, noting that a recent report by Amnesty International that was critical of Russia had also taken issue with the United States and Britain.

Police have violently broken up several opposition rallies this year that had not been authorized by the authorities.

Despite the heated rhetoric, comparisons to the Cold War are unfounded, lawmakers said. "We have just as many differences as we have common interests," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent State Duma deputy.

Ryzhkov said the U.S. missile defense plan was by far the most bitter conflict between Moscow and Washington. But he also pointed to "elements of cooperation" in the Middle East and over nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. "Yes there are general differences, but you must not speak of a confrontation and you must not speak of a Cold War," Ryzhkov said by telephone.

Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, downplayed the differences as pre-election campaigning. "The current rhetoric of American politicians and journalists does not reflect the real state of Russian-U.S. relations," Margelov said in an e-mailed statement. "The political culture in both countries demands strong words during election campaigns. But there are number of problems in the world that can only be addressed by friendly ties between Russia and the U.S."

Kremlin spokesman Peskov also said electoral campaigning played a role.

Russia holds parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote in March, while the United States will elect a new president later next year.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged NATO partners on Sunday to cooperate on developing defenses against short- and medium-range missiles as an alternative to the U.S. missile defense shield.

NATO and Russia have been holding consultations on Russia's participation in the project, which NATO hopes to develop by 2016, but no agreement has been reached.

Meanwhile, the United States and Russia have agreed on a plan to accelerate installation of radiation detection devices at 350 Russian border crossings to prevent nuclear smuggling, U.S. officials said Friday.

"This announcement is a major cooperative step in counter-proliferation work in Russia," said Will Tobey, a senior U.S. official for defense nuclear nonproliferation.

(The Moscow Times 04.vi.07)

 
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