LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The U.S. missile defense system is going global. The Bush administration now is pressing Europe to accept components of the system, including actual missile interceptors. The purpose: to combat Iran's growing missile capabilities. This has provoked some sharp debate in Europe and demonstrations against the system. Russia is also against it, and Moscow's attack on Georgia in August has complicated the matter even further. Here's NPR's Mike Shuster.
MIKE SHUSTER: For more than a year, the Bush administration has been urging the Europeans to embrace missile defense, specifically to install a high-tech radar system in the Czech Republic and 10 ground-based interceptor missiles in Poland. The Bush administration maintains this is all about the potential threat from Iranian missiles, but it has failed to convince the Russians that it does not pose an eventual challenge to their nuclear strike capability. Nevertheless, the NATO alliance backed the proposal, and in the spring the Czech government agreed. Secretary of State Rice traveled to Prague for the formalities.
Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (State Department): I'm very proud to stand with you today to sign this landmark agreement. I think that it is truly a landmark agreement. It is an agreement that is befitting for friends and allies who face a common threat in the 21st century and wish to address it through the application of the best defensive technologies that we can bring to bear.
SHUSTER: It may have been easy to gain the Czech government's backing, but the Czech public has been divided on the issue.
(Soundbite of demonstration)
SHUSTER: There have been several demonstrations in Prague against missile defense led by a group called No To The Base, the base that would house the missile radar. Jan Tomasch, a leader of the group, said the government's agreement is not the last word.
Mr. JAN TOMASCH (Leader, No To The Base): This signing of the treaty doesn't really change much because the treaty has to be ratified by the Czech parliament, and the position of the government in the parliament is very weak. So I don't think they will be able to get this treaty to be ratified by the parliament anytime soon, if at all.
SHUSTER: For some in the Czech Republic, the radar and the American soldiers that would operate it recall the many years when Soviet soldiers were stationed on their territory. Jiri Tutter is a leader of Greenpeace which opposes the missile defense system.
Mr. JIRI TUTTER (Leader, Czech Chapter, Greenpeace): The simple feeling that we would have yet another country on the soil of the Czech Republic, it looks to be difficult to accept for the public.
SHUSTER: Earlier this year, the political situation was similar in Poland. Many there opposed the deployment of 10 interceptor missiles and came out into the streets to protest. The government in Warsaw favored the system, but the talks stalled when Poland wanted the U.S. to commit to its air defense should it accept the missiles. Then Russia invaded Georgia. Almost immediately the Polish government signaled its willingness to sign up. And in early September Poland's prime minister, Donald Tusk, hosted Secretary of State Rice in Warsaw.
Prime Minister DONALD TUSK (Poland): This is a very special moment in our common history. We have achieved the main goal. It means that Poland and the United States of America will be more secure.
SHUSTER: Secretary of State Rice again insisted that the missile interceptors in Poland would have nothing to do with Russia.
Secretary RICE: This is an agreement that, of course, will establish a missile defense site here in Poland, a missile defense site that will help us to deal with the new threats of the 21st century of long-range missile threats from countries like Iran or from North Korea. This is a system that is defensive and is not aimed at anyone.
SHUSTER: But for many in Europe and indeed around the world, it was difficult to believe Russia was not a motivating factor. After all, it was Russia's attack on Georgia that brought about quick agreement between Washington and Warsaw. This has fueled Russian suspicions about the Americans, says Alexei Arbatov, a scholar at the Moscow Carnegie Center.
Dr. ALEXEI ARBATOV (Resident Scholar, Moscow Carnegie Center): They say, believe us, we are good guys. We do not mean harm to anybody. So, you should rest assured we do not mean anything against you. That's to what American position boils down. And Russians have a lot of reasons to be mistrustful, because we have an example of NATO expansion which started with three countries 10 years ago, and now they are talking about Ukraine and Georgia as members of NATO.
SHUSTER: For some in NATO, especially those states that were forced to remain in Moscow's orbit during the Cold War, that is precisely the point. Andrej Cirtek is the spokesman for the Czech Defense Ministry.
Mr. ANDREJ CIRTEK (Spokesman, Czech Defense Ministry): From a political point of view, placing elements of missile defense in Europe means strengthening of NATO, especially the link between both sides of Atlantic. So there's no surprise that Russia opposes it.
SHUSTER: Many of the proponents of missile defense in the U.S. have tried hard to convince Moscow that it has nothing to do with Russia's nuclear arsenal. Lieutenant General Henry Obering, the director of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, expresses frustration that the Russians won't see that the system is focused on Tehran.
Lieutenant General HENRY OBERING (Director, Pentagon Missile Defense Agency): Having 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic does not change the strategic balance. I mean, Russia has hundreds of ICBMs, thousands of warheads, and there's no way that these interceptors threaten that.
SHUSTER: But Alexei Arbatov suspects that the U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe will not stop with those 10 interceptors.
Dr. ARBATOV: Americans have never explained to Russia where would be the limits of the system and how Russia may rest assured that this is not a system designed to undermine Russian strategic deterrence.
SHUSTER: Late last year, in order to overcome Russian suspicions, Secretary of Defense Gates proposed to delay the crucial last phase in the American deployment until there was incontrovertible proof of Iran's missile development.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Defense Department): We have not fully developed this proposal, but the idea was we would go forward with the negotiations. We would complete the negotiations. We would develop the sites, build the sites, but perhaps with delay activating them until there was concrete proof of the threat from Iran.
SHUSTER: Russia's leaders did not embrace the offer. Russian analysts say a verbal agreement like this is not good enough. It needs to be written down after negotiations between Washington and Moscow. If anything, the Russian invasion of Georgia and NATO's hostile reaction has hardened the opposition in Moscow to U.S. missile defenses, a subject Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, touched on in an interview with Italian TV earlier this month.
(Soundbite of TV interview)
President DMITRY MEDVEDEV (Russia): (Russian spoken)
SHUSTER: If the decision to deploy missile interceptors is made, Medvedev said, if the radar is switched on, we will have to respond because we haven't received any reasonable explanation why it's being done. This won't help security in Europe. Russian analysts like Arbatov argue that if the U.S. really wants to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons which its missiles could carry, it should work closely with Russia because Russia has leverage over the Iranians.
Dr. ARBATOV: They can be prevented from moving so close to actual capability to produce weapons-grade uranium. But in order to do that, first of all Russia and the United States have to have joint position on that. And in order to do that, the United States should not do things which make Russia very hostile and very suspicious about American intentions with respect of Russia.
SHUSTER: Before the war in Georgia, the gap between the U.S. and Russia was considerable. Now it appears unbridgeable on missile defense and on most other key issues where both the U.S. and Russia have strong interests. Mike Shuster, NPR News.
WERTHEIMER: Tomorrow, the future of missile defense.
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