- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The war of words between the United States and Russia over U.S. missile-defense plans in Central Europe escalated yesterday, with Western diplomats saying that Moscow’s mistrust and suspicion of Washington — and the West in general — have changed little since the Cold War.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected a threat by Gen. Nikolay Solovtsov, commander of Russia’s strategic forces, against Poland and the Czech Republic as future hosts of a U.S. missile shield as “extremely unfortunate.”

“I think it is unfortunate that the Russian head of strategic rocket forces would come out and say that somehow Poland and the Czech Republic would now be on the target list of Russia,” Miss Rice said in Berlin yesterday.

Gen. Solovtsov’s comments on Monday followed remarks by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Munich earlier this month, as well as by other Russian officials, lambasting U.S. foreign policy as destabilizing and threatening world peace and security.

Several senior U.S. officials said they have no idea where those belligerent outbursts are coming from, given what they described as a businesslike and professional attitude the Russians have been displaying in private meetings.

Although many of those sessions, especially the high-level ones, often begin with a laundry list of complaints about U.S. actions, the Americans usually answer all of the Russians’ questions and concerns, and the Russians understand those answers even if they disagree with them, officials said.

A spokesman for the Russian Embassy did not return phone calls seeking a comment on the matter.

After Moscow accused Washington of not being transparent enough about its missile-defense plans, which Russia fears will target its territory, U.S. officials insisted that they have briefed their Russian counterparts repeatedly during the past year.

“These discussions go back to the spring of 2006. We have had no less than 10 formal contacts with the Russians about the missile-defense deployment and the prospective deployment in Poland and in the Czech Republic of interceptors in Poland and radar sites in the Czech Republic,” Miss Rice said yesterday.

“These discussions have gone all the way to the level of minister of defense,” she said. “I myself have discussed this with Russian officials several times in more informal settings. We’ve had briefings of the NATO-Russia Council.”

U.S. officials also say that the system would defend against rogue states and terrorists — not Russia.

“Everybody understands that with a growing Iranian missile threat, which is quite pronounced, that there need to be ways to deal with that problem and that we are talking about long lead times to be able to have a defensive counter to offensive-missile threats,” Miss Rice said.

Diplomats and analysts said that the Russians’ recent comments make sense in a domestic political context, but the question is whether the Kremlin really thinks the West is still trying to squeeze and intimidate Russia.

“The Russians are working hard to create this beautifully constructed, conspiracy-laden narrative that the West is on a mission to encircle them and weaken their global influence,” said Julianne Smith, director of the European program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who attended the Munich forum where Mr. Putin spoke.

“All that plays perfectly with domestic audiences, but the mystery is that Putin’s ratings are extremely high, and he doesn’t need this,” she said. “I worry that [the tension] will escalate even more with no real substance to it.”

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