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Missile Shield Strains U.S.-Russia Ties


Russia strongly opposes Washington's plan to introduce a missile defense system based in Eastern Europe. What does it mean for U.S.-Russia Relations?

U.S. officials say the proposed missile defense system, made up of ten missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic, is needed to defend Europe and the United States against potential threats from countries such as Iran.

However, Wade Boese from the Arms Control Association, a private research firm, says Iran does not pose an immediate danger. "That threat may not mature for another five years or so. Some predict that it may not become available until 2015. The Iranians right now have its longest-range ballistic missile, which is approximately 2,000 kilometers," says Boese. "And an intercontinental ballistic missile that would reach the United States would have to travel more than 5,500 kilometers. So they have some work to do before they actually perfect the technology to be able to develop a system that can reach the United States."

The U.S. Position

In a speech on October 23 to the National Defense University in Washington D.C., President Bush repeated his administration's view that a missile defense shield is necessary. "The need for missile defense in Europe is real and I believe it is urgent. Iran is pursuing the technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles of increasing range that could deliver them," said Mr. Bush.

For months, the Bush administration said Iran was actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program. But Tehran said it was destined for peaceful purposes only, such as electricity. Earlier this month, a new U.S. intelligence report said Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and had not resumed work on it as of mid-2007. During a White House press conference on December 4, President Bush said that despite the new report, U.S. policy toward Iran remains the same. "Iran was dangerous. Iran is dangerous. And Iran will be dangerous, if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," said Mr. Bush.

Experts say the new intelligence report will not force the Bush administration to reassess its plan for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. In addition to saying that the shield is necessary to protect Europe and the United States from countries such as Iran, Bush administration officials made clear it is not targeted against Russia.

Russia's Position

But Russian officials have strongly criticized the proposed system. Wade Boese says Moscow sees the Polish and Czech installations as the first steps in a much broader plan. "The Russians clearly acknowledge that ten missile interceptors pose no risk to its current stable of hundreds of ballistic missiles. But they see this as the tip of the iceberg," says Boese. "They see this as the first of many deployments that could follow around their periphery as well as, potentially in the future, up in space. So they see this as the tip of the iceberg of a system that is intended to counter or undermine the Russian deterrent."

Michael Levi from the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book, On Nuclear Terrorism, says Russia is opposed for another reason. "The concern is more that in the process of developing missile defense sites in Europe, the United States is building stronger relations with countries that were formerly part of the Soviet sphere. The Czech Republic, for example, which as Czechoslovakia, was part of the former Soviet sphere, Poland and so on. And that, I suspect, bothers Russia much more than the technical details of what is going on," says Levi.

In criticizing the missile plan, Russian President Vladimir Putin has used strong words. He accused the U.S. of wanting to become the dominant world power and he compared the current dispute between Washington and Moscow to the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Jason Lyall, a Russia expert at Princeton University, says the Russian president used overblown language. "It's mostly rhetoric. But it's an interesting choice of rhetoric. Right? To bring out the most dangerous moment of the Cold War and to use that as a parallel. It's really not," says Lyall. "The missiles that are proposed in Poland don't have any offensive capabilities. They are strictly defensive, whereas the Soviet missiles being put in Cuba had a clearly offensive capability. And so it is overblown rhetoric. But it is an interesting choice of metaphor or analogy."

Michael Levi agrees that this is pure rhetoric. "The Cuban missile crisis was a time when the world came very close to nuclear war. Right now, we are haggling over the potential to be building some sort of defensive missile interceptors without nuclear warheads in Europe. These are two different things."

Room for Compromise?

President Putin has offered Washington the use of a radar facility in Gabala, Azerbaijan in exchange for abandoning the Czech and Polish plans. American officials say they welcome Russian cooperation, but not at the expense of the missile defense shield.

Wade Boese from the Arms Control Association says Washington and Moscow are continuing negotiations. "But in reality, they are talking past each other. As noted before, Russia is proposing that cooperation be done on the condition the U.S. halt or cease its current plan. The United States says that it is going to go forward with this plan because it thinks that's the right plan. But meanwhile, we'll discuss ways to cooperate with Russia to ease its concerns. Well, the Russians' concerns are with the deployment in the first place. So as long as the U.S. proceeds with that, it is still going to upset Russia. So right now, the two sides are talking past each other and they really have not, I think, found common ground."

Many experts say the only way to resolve the issue is for each side to compromise. But right now, neither Washington nor Moscow seems willing to do so.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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