President Bush struck a conciliatory tone on Wednesday in an effort to calm tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
The president said Russia is not a threat to Europe, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's remark that he may aim missiles at neighboring countries in response to U.S. plans to put elements of a defense missile system in the former Soviet bloc countries of Poland and the Czech Republic.
"Russia is not going to attack Europe," President Bush said. But only a day earlier he had accused Putin of eroding democratic reforms in Russia.
As the Group of Eight nations begins an annual summit in Germany, President Bush and Putin are preparing for a private meeting on Thursday. But tensions are expected to run high as the dispute intensifies over the defense missile shield.
During his visit to the Czech Republic on Tuesday, Mr. Bush dismissed Putin's claim that the missile shield will target Russia. He said the system will be purely defensive, aimed against possible attacks from rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea.
"The Cold War is over. It ended. The people of the Czech Republic don't have to choose between being a friend of the United States or a friend with Russia. You can be both," the president asserted.
But Putin isn't buying it. Speaking to reporters from several G8 countries, Putin reiterated Russia's concern that the missile defense system would "change the entire configuration of international security."
"Of course, we'll have to react to it," Putin said. "We didn't start this new arms race in Europe. Naturally, we'll have to have new targets in Europe."
Bush is down-playing Putin's remarks, but the anti-American rhetoric is alarming to Washington.
Putin recently compared the United States to Nazi Germany and said the U.S. missile shield would turn Europe into a "powder keg."
Last week, Russia tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile that Russian officials said is meant to evade defensive shields.
But missile defense is one of many issues deeply dividing Russia and the West. Rose Gottemoeller of the Moscow Carnegie Center said it is where Russia has drawn a red line.
"I think it was the straw that broke the camel's back," Gottemoeller said. "They had gotten increasingly frustrated over the last couple years that they didn't think the United States was paying sufficient attention to their concerns on a number of issues."
Those issues include NATO's expansion into the former Soviet bloc and the Iraq war, both of which Russia fiercely opposed.
The tone was much more conciliatory early in Putin's presidency. After September 11, Putin supported the war against terrorism and new U.S. military bases in formerly Soviet Central Asia.
Boris Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies said the Kremlin feels it has received nothing in return.
"Now there's talk about expanding NATO into the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine," Makarkin said. "On top of that, the United States is stepping up its criticism of Moscow on human rights and democracy."
This week's G-8 Summit was supposed to have been the last official meeting between Bush and Putin, both of whom are attempting to build up their legacies before leaving office.
But their last meeting will now take place next month. Bush recently invited Putin to visit his parents' compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.
"You know, I actually think for a change that the G-8 summit might be getting some attention to its own agenda rather than this raft of bilateral U.S.-Russian issues, simply because there's an opportunity for the two presidents to meet within a three-week time period," Gottemoeller said.
But there are signs the split between Russia and the U.S. may have shifted to a deep, ideological rift.
On Tuesday, Bush said Putin has "derailed" Russia's once-promising democratic reforms.
But during a recent interview, Putin denounced the West's record on democracy and called himself the world's only "pure democrat."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.