- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2007

PRAGUE — The White House said yesterday that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to aim missiles at Europe was an undue escalation of rhetoric and called his latest salvo “not helpful.”

Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent, claimed to be the world’s only “pure” democrat and compared himself to Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian leader who championed civil rights and nonviolent resistance to tyranny.

Aboard Air Force One en route to the Czech Republic with President Bush, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said the United States wants “constructive dialogue with Russia” on the missile defense issue.

“This is an effort to help our NATO allies deal with threats not from Russia, but from rogue states. And as I say, as part of an alliance, we feel an obligation to be helping our allies defend themselves against the same threats for which we are defending ourselves,” he said.

U.S. plans call for 10 ground-based interceptor missiles at four bases in Poland and an advanced radar system in the Czech Republic.

“It does not pose a threat to Russia. Hopefully it is not about a threat from Russia,” Mr. Hadley said. Still, “we think there has been some escalation in the rhetoric.”

Mr. Putin has warned the United States that deployment of an anti-missile system across Eastern Europe would force Russia to aim missiles at Europe. He has raised the specter of a return to the Cold War and accused the United States of beginning a new arms race.

Mr. Bush, who arrived last night in the Czech Republic, has taken a low-key approach to Mr. Putin’s rhetoric but plans to discuss democracy in a speech today.

“He’ll talk a little bit about the challenge of promoting democracy in countries — big countries, in particular, where we have a complex relationship and a number of interests — countries like China and Russia,” Mr. Hadley said.

The White House once reserved the term “complex relationship” exclusively for China, but has recently added Russia to that category.

Mr. Bush has included stops in former Soviet satellites during his trips to Russia. His current eight-day, six-nation trip will not include Russia, but the president is expected to meet with Mr. Putin at the Group of Eight summit in Germany.

He then is scheduled to visit Poland.

“The president will not shy away from his message: that democracy across the world, which also means across Eastern Europe, is a good thing,” said a senior administration official. “Russia should not feel threatened. Having democracies on its borders is a plus, not a minus.”

Mr. Putin has bristled at what he views as Mr. Bush’s attempt to preach to him about democracy.

In an interview released yesterday, he rejected Western criticism that he has centralized power in the Kremlin and moved away from the democratic reforms he pledged when he took office in 2000.

“Of course I am an absolute, pure democrat. But you know the problem? It’s not even a problem, it’s a real tragedy. The thing is that I am the only one; there just aren’t any others in the world,” Mr. Putin said.

“After the death of Mahatma Gandhi there’s nobody to talk to,” he told Reuters news agency.

He criticized Washington for what he called “sheer horror: torture, the homeless, Guantanamo, keeping people in custody without trial or investigation.”

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