Monday, June 4, 2007

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin sent a chilling message to world leaders on the eve of the Group of Eight summit with a threat to aim Russian nuclear missiles at European cities for the first time since the Cold War.

In comments that seemed calculated to cause consternation and division at Wednesday’s meeting in Germany, the Russian leader said U.S. plans to erect a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe had left him with no choice but to retaliate.

“It is obvious that if part of the strategic nuclear potential of the United States is located in Europe, we will have to respond,” he told reporters from G-8 countries in Moscow over the weekend.

“What kind of steps are we are going to take in response? Of course, we are going to acquire new targets in Europe.”

Mr. Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric has grown more strident since Washington confirmed plans to put 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic by 2012 — a project he says is directed at Russia.

The United States says privately that the program is designed to stop one or two missiles fired by Iran, which continues to develop a nuclear program despite mounting international pressure.

In a defiant speech yesterday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said: “Even if all the world powers are slitting their own throats, the Iranian people are invincible and will remain invincible.

“Iran is not trying to make aggression against other countries. It only wants that its right be accepted and will not accept the injustice of the great powers,” he said.

With more disputes brewing between Russia and other members of the G-8 industrialized nations, the strain in East-West relations will overshadow a summit that the German hosts had wanted to focus on the environment and African poverty.

Despite hopes that an invitation for direct talks with President Bush in Kennebunkport, Maine, next month would mollify Mr. Putin’s anger, the Russian president sent out a clear signal that he preferred combat to compromise.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair can also expect a particularly frosty reception when he meets Mr. Putin on the sidelines of the summit.

The Kremlin is outraged by Britain’s demand to extradite Andrei Lugovoi in the killing of fellow KGB veteran Alexander Litvinenko and has said London is exploiting the case for political ends.

Mr. Putin went one step further over the weekend, accusing Britain of providing shelter to terrorists — a reference to the political asylum granted by the courts to Boris Berezovsky, a tycoon and the president’s chief foe, and Akhmad Zakayev, an envoy of the anti-Russian Chechen rebels.

“The suspicion arises that this is a political move made by those who hide terrorists and thieves on their own territory,” Mr. Putin said.

The United States has backed Britain’s extradition request, and Mr. Blair is likely to maintain his support for the U.S. missile shield.

But diplomats suggested that Mr. Putin’s nuclear threat could stem from a belief that support from other G-8 countries — particularly Germany and Italy — is less solid.

Mr. Putin, they suggested, was attempting to convince European powers that the shield, which is ostensibly meant to protect the West from nuclear attack by a rogue Middle Eastern country, was not worth the risk of provoking Russia.

Returning to a theme that has begun to dominate statements by senior Kremlin officials, Mr. Putin acknowledged that targeting Europe with Russian missiles would escalate an arms race he says has already begun.

But, he insisted: “It was not us who started altering the strategic balance.”

The president refused to be drawn on which European cities could be targeted.

“It is up to our military to define these targets, in addition to defining the choice between ballistic and cruise missiles,” he said. “But this is just a technical aspect.”

The United States has ruled out abandoning the shield, expressing exasperation that Russia has rebuffed repeated invitations to participate in the project.

U.S. officials have called Moscow’s fears “preposterous,” arguing that the 10 conventional missiles at the heart of the shield would be no match for the thousands of nuclear warheads in Russia’s arsenal.

At last year’s G-8 summit, hosted by Russia, world leaders went out of their way to avoid criticism of Mr. Putin — even though he publicly mocked Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair. A year later, however, that mood of indulgence is swiftly evaporating.

David Kramer, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said Washington would no longer “abstain from speaking out.”

Mr. Putin’s “suppression of genuine opposition, the abridgment of the right to protest, the constriction of civil society and the decline of media freedom are all serious setbacks.”

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