Missile Defense Strains U.S.-Russia Relations

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Moscow for a two-day visit to repair the United States' fraying relationship with Russia. The countries will discuss Russia's objections to a U.S.-led missile defense system for Eastern Europe.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's been a long time since President Bush said he looked Russian President Vladimir Putin in the eye and got a sense of his soul. Back in 2001, the American president said he found Russia's president to be straightforward and trustworthy. Since then, Russia has rolled back much of its democracy. The two countries clashed over Iraq. And now, Russia is unhappy that the United States wants to put elements of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. That's the scene as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice begins a visit to Moscow.

NPR's Emily Harris is covering the story. And Emily, why does Russia oppose that missile defense system?

EMILY HARRIS: Well, Russia couches it basically in terms of this being the first step to provoking a new arms race. Putin has said that this would the inevitable response to the U.S. putting missile defenses, a radar, and a battery of interceptor missiles into Poland and the Czech Republic.

The Western view is somewhat different. It's generally that Russia is concerned about its influence in Europe. Moscow didn't like it when NATO expanded eastward to its borders, and it does not like having more U.S. military hardware especially in these two countries that used to be part of the communist block, that was the U.S.' prime enemy during the Cold War. And this particular harsh stance that Russia has been taking against missile dispute is also - they're tying it to other issues.

INSKEEP: Such as?

HARRIS: Well, Kosovo for example. The U.S. and Russia are pretty much diametrically opposed on what should happen next there. That's the Serbian province that has been run by the United Nations for the past eight years after NATO, led by the U.S., bombed Serbia, a Russian ally, at the end of the wars that broke the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The decision on what to do next with Kosovo is coming to a head and diplomats are telling me that this missile defense dispute is making what had been expected to be a difficult negotiation over Kosovo significantly and surprisingly harder. And then, more importantly perhaps for Moscow, there's an ongoing disagreement between Russia and Europe and the U.S. about the number of non-nuclear weapons that can be stationed in various parts of Europe. This is detailed in an agreement called the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty.

It's been someone stalemated because Russia says NATO isn't doing its part. NATO says Russia isn't doing its part. But last month, Putin really ratcheted things up by announcing that Moscow is suspending its obligations under this treaty and tied that, in part, to U.S. missile defense plans.

INSKEEP: I want to back up from those details and remember again what this missile defense system is supposed to do. It supposedly could, if it worked, intercept a few missiles, not a huge number of missiles, which is one reason that American say this isn't aimed at Russia. Russia has thousands of missiles. They could overwhelm the system if they wanted. This is just an effort to stop a rogue country like, say, Iran.

HARRIS: Yeah, that's right. And actually part of the shield would go over a bit of Russia, the path that some missiles from Iran might also take. But the problem here is the publicly presented threat assessment. I mean, you have to agree on a threat assessment before you could agree on a possible solution. And the U.S. says Iran will have missiles that could reach Europe, possibly nuclear ones. They want to be ready. Russia says that there isn't such a threat and it's not foreseeable.

INSKEEP: Is there a reason that a missile defense system would be especially necessary, at least from the U.S. perspective, against a country like Iran?

HARRIS: At this point, Iran doesn't have missiles that could hit Europe or nuclear ones. And the head of the U.S. missile defense talks about this system itself as a possible deterrent. The thinking goes, why would Iran develop these weapons if they knew they were going to be shot down? The test record on the missile defense system makes that far from clear. It's not clear that Iran embraces those ideas from the U.S., but that's part of the thinking on it.

INSKEEP: None of which seems to be making Russia grateful for this system.

HARRIS: No. Russia does not seem interested in having this system at all. It really is one of the very difficult thorns in the U.S. and Russia relationship right now, and tied to many others.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's Emily Harris in Berlin. Emily, thanks very much.

HARRIS: Thank you.

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