Europeans Uneasy About Missile Defense Shield

By Eva Cahen | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Paris, France ( - European officials are reacting to Russian criticism of U.S. plans to deploy missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe by calling for dialogue, favoring a cautious attitude toward the former Cold War enemy.

The Pentagon's plans to locate 10 missile interceptors in Poland and an early warning radar station in the Czech Republic have triggered an angry response from the Russians, who refused to accept U.S. assertions that the shield aims to protect against threats from countries like Iran, not Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. of trying to renew the nuclear arms race, saying Washington "has overstepped its national borders in every way."

Although U.S. allies in Europe would benefit from the missile umbrella, European officials responded uneasily to the dispute, with Germany criticizing the U.S. for not discussing the plans with Russia first.

"Because the sites for the stationing are getting nearer to Russia, one should have talked about it with Russia beforehand," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the daily newspaper, Handelsblatt.

Analysts say that the German reaction illustrated its concerns about Russian threats to abandon the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty if the U.S. goes through with the deployment.

"The German worries come from the Russian reaction to the American project that the Russians could rearm part of their nuclear ballistic forces," said Bruno Gruselle of the Strategic Research Foundation in Paris.

A French foreign affairs ministry spokesman said France, too, agreed that there should be a dialogue with Moscow on the issue and that Russian concerns should be taken into consideration.

"The Russians have expressed a number of concerns about the missile shield. We are not party to the American missile shield project, but this may also be an element to take into consideration in the European security architecture," the spokesman said.

Gruselle attributed the European reaction to the long-standing view that "one has to speak to the Russians when it comes to doing something with former members of the Warsaw Pact."

"These questions are very complicated and sensitive since the enlargement of the Atlantic Alliance," he said, referring to NATO's expansion since 1999 to incorporate former Soviet satellites - a continuing sore point for Russia.

Gruselle said the European stance on talking to the Russians about anything that happens in Eastern Europe "shouldn't still be there but effectively, in Europe, there is still this sentiment, even if it's not a policy."

"The Russians, when speaking about abandoning the INF treaty, are showing that they can still be a threat to the construction of Europe," he added.

The issue is more a political question than a strategic one, because 10 U.S. interceptor missiles would be a "mouse against a mountain" compared to the hundreds of missiles in the Russian arsenal, Gruselle said.

Pentagon officials have made a similar point in backing up their argument that the shield will be designed to protect against the possibility a rogue state will fire a missile - not against a full-scale Russian strike.

Gruselle pointed to other possible reasons for European response, including the view that Russian cooperation is vital to the resolution of international disputes such as the one over Iran's nuclear program, and Europe's commercial ties with Russia.

Putin's "anti-Americanism" can also be popular in Europe, he added.

"In Europe, there is a desire to treat Moscow less with violence and more with consideration. The question is not about whether to carry out the project but about not offending the Russians."

In Italy, Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema told lawmakers earlier this week that a renewed threat of an arms race between the U.S. and Russia needed to be put back on the international agenda.

Britain, meanwhile, confirmed on Friday that it is holding talks with the U.S. on installing a missile defense system on its territory.

"The prime minister thinks it is a good idea that we are part of the consideration by the U.S.," said Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman.

"We believe that it is an important step towards providing missile defense coverage for Europe, of which we are part," the spokesman added.

NATO was expanded in March 1999 to include Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary.

In 2004, the alliance opened its ranks to three more former Soviet allies - Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia; former Soviet constituent states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; and Slovenia - a former part of Yugoslavia, which although communist was not a Warsaw Pact ally.

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