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Last Updated: Friday, 8 June 2007, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK
New era of discord for Russia and West
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

President Putin
Putin wants to apply pressure to US anti-missile plans

President Vladimir Putin's threat to target missiles at Europe indicates that the hostility between Russia and the West is more than a passing phase. It has become a permanent part of world diplomacy.

Russian missiles have not been targeted on European countries for many years. Mr Putin blamed the US plan to develop an anti-missile system in eastern Europe.

Targeting missiles indicates a worsening state of relations. It is more of a political than a military move, since a non-targeted missile remains a threat in any case.

To keep matters in proportion, it is important to note that Mr Putin was not suggesting a return to the wholesale targeting of Europe by the Soviet Union. He hinted that any "new targets" would be connected to the "strategic nuclear potential of the United States...in Europe".

Uneasiness

Mr Putin clearly wants to apply pressure so that the US proposal, which needs the approval of the Polish and Czech governments, is not implemented.

He disregarded US assurances that the system was too small to affect Russian defences and was aimed at countering potential future threats from Iran. Other parts of the system are based in Alaska and California and are designed to prevent potential attacks from North Korea.

It is an era of self-interest, with both sides following and promoting their own agendas, which may or may not coincide or clash

And he appeared to contradict what he himself said in January 2006, when he announced that Russia had a new ballistic missile. "These missiles don't represent a response to a missile defence system," he said at the time.

So his threats have to be put in a wider context.

Update 8 June: Mr Putin tried to reduce tension over the issue at the G8 meeting by suggesting alternative locations for the system, in Azerbaijan or Turkey or at sea, but the underlying differences with Russia remain. Tony Blair said he had a "very frank" talk with Mr Putin.

President Bush, on a visit to the Czech Republic, had made it clear that he would not give up the plan but he went out of his way to try to explain it. "The Cold War is over...Russia is not our enemy" he said, laying out what he would tell Mr Putin: "My message will be: Vladimir -- I call him Vladimir -- that you shouldn't fear a missile defence system. As a matter of fact why don't you cooperate with us on a missile defence system?"

Later, he commented about Russia: "Reforms that once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development."

New era

"A new Cold War" and similar descriptions do not catch the reality of this new and antagonistic relationship. It is possibly a long-term one, based less on the ideology of the Cold War confrontation and more on a big power uneasiness that each side might just have to live with.

It is an era of self-interest, with both sides following and promoting their own agendas, which may or may not coincide or clash.

Indeed, analysts are beginning to discount the current leadership on both sides as incapable of much change and to look ahead to see what might develop after President Putin stands down next spring and President George W Bush at the start of 2009.

G8 and Maine

The G8 meeting this week, and the probably more important bilateral meeting at the Bush family encampment at Kennebunkport in Maine in early July, might not make much difference.

The Maine invitation is at least a gesture by Mr Bush. He has not invited any other foreign leader there. But the fact that he has chosen (with a hint from his father maybe?) the family's inner sanctum shows how bad things have become.

Protest in Prague, 17 March 2007
The US missile plan has brought protests in the Czech Republic

"I very much doubt if the meeting in Maine will produce much," said Margot Light, a Russia watcher at the London School of Economics.

"I don't see a meeting of minds, though Mr Putin likes the idea of Russia being courted and is pleased to go. He argues that Russia is a great power and has to be taken into account.

"However, Bush will not change his mind about anti-missile deployment in eastern Europe and nothing short of that will persuade Putin to relent.

"Putin likened it to scratching your left ear with your right hand. It re-invokes the psychosis of encirclement felt by the Soviet Union after the war. Russia is incensed that its words and interests are being disregarded. That said, it is milking the issue for all it is worth."

The Putin approach

The current problems are partly to do with the legacy of the Yeltsin years, which Mr Putin felt he had to erase by taking a firm, nationalistic line. This of course coincided with the neo-conservative line being taken by the Bush administration.

Russia should keep in mind the adage that 'two wrongs don't make a right' when formulating its responses to the US anti-missile plan
Wade Boese,
Arms Control Association

Washington has gone ahead perhaps too confidently with its plans, assuming that the Russians are now on board.

The key example here is the US withdrawal from the anti-ballistic missile treaty, announced in 2001. This has led directly to the US proposals for the deployment of the missile defence system in the UK, the Czech Republic and Poland.

The Russians, however, are not on board.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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