U.S., Russia Divided Over Missile Defense

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A demonstrator takes part in a protest march in Prague. i

A demonstrator takes part in a protest march in Prague against a possible base of a U.S. missile defense radar system in the Czech Republic, May 26, 2007. Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images
A demonstrator takes part in a protest march in Prague.

A demonstrator takes part in a protest march in Prague against a possible base of a U.S. missile defense radar system in the Czech Republic, May 26, 2007.

Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images

President Bush says a missile-defense radar system in the Czech Republic and Poland is meant to protect the West from a nuclear attack by Iran. But Russian President Vladimir Putin is calling it an expansion of NATO and a threat.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Poisoned spies, oil supplies, human rights - these are some of the issues dividing Russia and the West, sinking relations to their lowest since the Cold War. In Moscow, one topic above all is fueling anger - American plans for a missile defense system.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER: Judging by the rhetoric, you'd be forgiven for believing Russia and the United States were at war. This month, President Vladimir Putin implicitly compared the United States to Nazi Germany. He's especially angry over American plans for the missile shield which he says would turn Europe into a powder keg.

President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: What's happening in Europe today that it's so negative it requires filling Eastern Europe with new weapons, he said last week. It will do nothing except create a new arms race.

Moscow is furious over plans to install parts of the missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland, former Soviet bloc countries that are now members of the European Union and NATO. Washington says the missile shield is aimed against only possible attacks from rogue states. But last week, Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said the shield will really be directed against Russia.

Mr. SERGEI IVANOV (First Deputy Prime Minister, Russia): (Through translator) We're not satisfied by any of the reasons given for this missile defense system. The explanation that it's against North Korea and Iran just doesn't hold any water.

FEIFER: Russia says it will take adequate measures in response to the American plan. Yesterday Moscow test fired a new intercontinental ballistic missile it says is meant to evade missile shields. But a number of top Russian generals have agreed the American missile shields can't possibly threaten Russia's nuclear arsenal.

Military expert Pavel Felgenhauer says Russia's stated opposition to the American missile sites in Eastern Europe is really the result of an increasingly aggressive attitude toward the West.

Mr. PAVEL FELGENHAUER (Military Expert): Putin's foreign policy has been from day one to reestablish Russia as a sort of world superpower and also to sort of retake control of what Putin and the Kremlin believe is Russian natural sphere of influence.

FEIFER: Putin has suspended Russia's observation of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty - a Cold War-era agreement limiting the number of tanks and other weapons in Europe, and he's threatened to withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. But experts say Washington hasn't done itself any favors by failing to consult with countries that oppose a missile shield that's yet to show it can work. And Felgenhauer says neither Iran nor North Korea currently have missiles capable of reaching U.S. territory.

Mr. FELGENHAUER: This is a kind of ineffective interceptor against a non-existent threat, which have been sort of used as a rallying call for anti-Western, anti-American sentiment.

FEIFER: Analysts say there's not much Putin can do to affect plans for the U.S. missiles shield. But Moscow's strident opposition indicates just how far it's moved toward open diplomatic confrontation with the West.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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