Continued from page 1

Missile shield

American officials have dismissed Russian fears that the missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic could ever block Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal.

They say the shield is designed against rogue regimes such as Iran or terrorist groups that could potentially obtain a small cache of nuclear weapons.

But Mr. Putin also caught Mr. Bush and American officials off-guard with a proposal in Germany last week to use an old Soviet radar station in Azerbaijan for the planned missile-defense system rather than Poland and the Czech Republic.

The Russian president had previously threatened to retarget Russian missiles aimed at Europe in an effort to “defeat” the U.S. shield.

The Azerbaijan plan “will make it unnecessary for us to place our offensive complexes along the border with Europe,” Mr. Putin said.

Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrovsaid in Moscow that the Russian-rented Qabala radar station in Azerbaijan “remarkably well copes with all its tasks and it fully serves our interests without causing any strain in Russia’s ties with its neighbors.”

U.S. officials have met the idea with guarded skepticism. On a visit Friday to Warsaw, Mr. Bush signaled that he was still intent on the Polish and Czech sites.

On the rise

Russian officials and private analysts say that two major factors are behind Mr. Putin’s increasingly pugnacious tone: rising self-confidence in the Kremlin as the oil-fueled economy booms after the near-depression performance in the 1990s and growing Russian resentment at what Moscow sees as the U.S. readiness to exploit its previous weaknesses.

Mr. Putin, slated to step down when his second four-year term ends in March, also must watch his domestic front, protecting his legacy and ensuring the election of a sympathetic successor.

Tough words aimed at Washington and leading European capitals could be a way to boost hawkish Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov, long one of Mr. Putin’s closest advisers, according to Stephen Sestanovich, former top State Department adviser on Russia and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“It may be that Putin is doing [Ivanov] a favor,” Mr. Sestanovich said. “Or it may be that in the last year of his presidency, he just gets to cut loose and say what he really thinks.”

Widening the divide is the popular impression among Russian officials that Moscow is the victim, not the aggressor, in the current period of tension.

In their view, U.S. and European complaints about the state of democracy under Mr. Putin are an unacceptable interference in Russia’s internal affairs. NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders and the proposed missile-defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic are moves designed to exploit Russia’s post-Cold War weakness.

Story Continues →