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Russian President Toughens Nuclear Stance

June 4, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: President Bush began a week of diplomatic meetings and public speeches in Europe, arriving this evening in the Czech Republic, where citizens are split on their country becoming a major part of a U.S. missile defense plan for Europe.

JAROMIR BECICKA, Czech Republic Citizen (through translator): There are pros and cons. I’m concerned about the Russian reaction. It could lead to unnecessary tensions and production of weapons to balance the power.

ALES KUNCKY, Czech Republic Citizen (through translator): For sure, I am for the American radar. We have 40 years’ experience with the Russians, and we can’t expect from them any good. Even now, Putin is angry with us; I am 100 percent for it.

RAY SUAREZ: Moscow’s anger peaked this weekend, when President Vladimir Putin warned that Russia would take what he called “retaliatory measures” if Washington went forward with the plan.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, President of Russia (through translator): We are told that the anti-missile defense system is designed for defending something which does not exist. Doesn’t it seem funny to you? It would have been funny if it wasn’t so sad.

We are not satisfied with the explanations which have been presented to us. We think that there is no reason for placing an anti-missile system in Europe, and our military experts believe that this system will cover the territory of the Russian Federation up to the Urals.

RAY SUAREZ: Putin raised the stakes even further when he told a group of Western newspaper reporters, quote, “If a part of the strategic nuclear potential of the U.S. appears in Europe, and in the opinion of our military specialists will threaten us, then we will have to take appropriate steps in response. What kind of steps? We will have to have new targets in Europe.”

As a part of the planned missile defense system, the U.S. wants to place a battery of ground-based interceptor missiles in Poland and an advanced radar system in the Czech Republic. The Bush administration says this defensive system does not threaten Russia, but rather offers protection to European countries in the event of a missile strike launched from Iran.

Iran doesn’t have missiles that can reach Europe, but the U.S. says it’s only a matter of time.

STEPHEN HADLEY, National Security Adviser: It’s not aimed at Russia. The systems we would deploy do not have capability of any significant character against Russian ICBMs destined for — you know, that are aimed at the United States. It just doesn’t have any capability. It’s a very limited capability about other states like Iran, who are developing ballistic missiles, and potentially the weapons of mass destruction that those missiles could deliver, so it’s all about Iran.

RAY SUAREZ: President Bush insisted last week the Cold War is over and announced he will host President Putin at the Bush family retreat in Maine early next month. But tensions between the U.S. and Russia about the missile shield could dominate the annual summit of the G-8 industrial nations this week in Germany.

Generating a debate

Aaron Friedberg
Princeton University
[Putin]'s trying to encourage debate, but I think his purpose is a strategic one to encourage divisions and tensions.

RAY SUAREZ: For two perspectives, we talk to Aaron Friedberg, who served as Vice President Cheney's deputy assistant for national security affairs from 2003 to 2005. He's now a professor of politics and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

And Dmitri Trenin, a senior associate and deputy director of the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he's a former Soviet and Russian army officer who served on arms control delegations. He's the author of a forthcoming book, "Getting Russia Right."

And, Dmitri Trenin, why is President Putin so publicly giving such a tough response to the U.S. missile program?

DMITRI TRENIN, Moscow Center, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Well, I think that the aim of President Putin is to generate a debate on those issues. He sees the U.S. administration going ahead with the plans to deploy radar in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland without much of a discussion of those issues either in the United States or in Europe.

So, basically, what he is trying to say is that -- or what he's saying -- is that this will come at a cost if it materializes, and people should be serious while it's still not a fact.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Friedberg, President Putin trying to generate a debate?

AARON FRIEDBERG, Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University: Well, I'd go a little bit further than that. I think he's trying to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies, and possibly to encourage divisions and disagreements among the NATO countries, in particular between the so-called new European countries of the former Soviet empire and the Western European powers. So, yes, he's trying to encourage debate, but I think his purpose is a strategic one to encourage divisions and tensions.

The timing of the issue

Dmitri Trenin
Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace
And the U.S. and Russia will have something that Putin called a new arms race, and Europe would suffer as a result of that.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, let's talk a little bit about the timing. Secretary of State Rice, in talks with her Russian counterpart, publicly tried to smooth things over in advance of the G-8 meeting. Yet the Russian president seems determined to make this an issue which will get a lot of play at that upcoming meeting.

AARON FRIEDBERG: Yes, and I think that's a large part of the reason for his recent statements. This is something that has not come as a surprise. The decisions were made several months ago and publicly announced.

So Mr. Putin is trying to take advantage of the timing of the G-8 summit to draw more attention to this issue and I think, also, to make himself, in a sense, the center of attention and to try to encourage the other states that will be participating in the summit to make efforts to placate him and be more accommodating to his wishes and demands.

RAY SUAREZ: Dmitri Trenin, why this fight at this time?

DMITRI TRENIN: Well, I think that I would agree with Professor Friedberg that the timing is propitious from President Putin's viewpoint. There is a G-8 summit. And within Europe -- let's face it -- there are different views on the advisability, desirability of U.S. missile defense deployments.

And Putin is playing on those differences; there's no question about that. He's basically trying to make his point to the Western Europeans that, if they remain silent during this period, then it may be too late. And the U.S. and Russia will have something that Putin called a new arms race, and Europe would suffer as a result of that.

He is basically calling on them to speak up and to speak up against the plans of the Bush administration.

Skepticism over the deployments

Aaron Friedberg
Princeton University
[A]nything that draws the United States and the European countries closer together after the divisions of recent years is something that's worrisome to the Russians...

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Dmitri Trenin, can that publicly expressed fear be taken at face value? Is the Russian leadership sincerely worried about a U.S.-sponsored missile shield? Does it not accept U.S. assurances that this is only meant to defend against rogue arsenals elsewhere in the world?

DMITRI TRENIN: Well, I think that they would be very skeptical about themselves as to the stated goal of those deployments, i.e. to protect against an Iranian nuclear strike or missile strike. They do not believe, clearly, that the proposed deployments are of the kind and nature and scope as would represent a problem to the Russian nuclear arsenal.

However, what they fear is that, once those deployments become a fact, they can be expanded and they could present a kind of a problem to the Russian nuclear arsenal that these people in the Kremlin would absolutely want to avoid.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Friedberg, do you agree with that, that there's true consternation at the prospect of an American missile defense program in Europe?

AARON FRIEDBERG: Well, I agree with Dmitri's comment that the Russian authorities probably know that the systems that are to be deployed imminently are not a threat to their ballistic missile forces. They simply don't have the technical capabilities; they're not sufficiently large to serve that function. So, to the extent that they're pretending or claiming to be worried about that, I think it's not sincere.

On the other hand, I do think that they're worried about two things. One, anything that draws the United States and the European countries closer together after the divisions of recent years is something that's worrisome to the Russians, particularly deepening U.S. ties with countries like the Czech Republic, and Poland, and Hungary. They don't want to see this; they would prefer that it not happen.

And in the longer run, I think they may be concerned about deployments of missile defense systems or elements of missile defense systems that could threaten their nuclear missile capabilities. But that's not something that's imminent.

Russia becoming more assertive

Dmitri Trenin
Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace
I think that, as long as Mr. Putin is talking about the problems created by U.S. deployments, he has quite a few ears that are listening in Europe.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, does this latest sparring over a missile defense program -- is it worsened by the fact that Russia and the United States were already fighting about plenty of other things, about the Ukraine, about Georgia, about other events involving Eastern European former Warsaw Pact countries?

AARON FRIEDBERG: Yes, I think it has to be seen in that larger context. For the last several years under President Putin, Russia has been pursuing a more aggressive, assertive policy, fueled in part by the increase in oil prices, which has boosted their economy and their confidence. And that's led to a series of disagreements and frictions, with the Russians trying to push back against what they see as the encroachments of the West, and particularly the United States, around their frontier. So this is part of something bigger that's been going on for quite a while.

RAY SUAREZ: Dmitri Trenin, you mentioned the idea that Russia is -- and as Professor Friedberg did -- Russia is not too happy about the prospect of tightening relationship with the United States on the part of some of these countries. But is pointing a missile arsenal at them, one that was very publicly turned away from Europe just a few years ago, is that really the answer?

DMITRI TRENIN: Well, I think that that could be a problem for Russia. I think that, as long as Mr. Putin is talking about the problems created by U.S. deployments, he has quite a few ears that are listening in Europe.

However, once the Russian government starts talking about targeting new countries in Europe -- and during the Cold War, of course, the Soviet Union never targeted Poland or the Czech Republic, so this is something very new -- then he starts losing people.

And I think that Mr. Putin may be engaged in some kind of a gamble. He is trying to win Europe over to his side against the plans of the Bush administration, and he finds what he thinks is the right moment, in terms of U.S. domestic politics, in terms of U.S. global difficulties.

But on the other hand, once he starts talking about the Russian response, people start thinking about Russia as the Soviet Union. And that is something not to Russia's advantage.

RAY SUAREZ: Very, very quickly, Professor Friedberg, should Eastern Europeans be concerned by this hint by Vladimir Putin to start retargeting their missile arsenal?

AARON FRIEDBERG: I think they should be concerned about Russia's broader intentions and its efforts to extend its influence again into parts of what it used to consider its own backyard. This is only a small piece of that.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Friedberg, Dmitri Trenin, gentlemen, thank you both.

DMITRI TRENIN: You're welcome.