PRAGUE, Czech Republic—President Bush will spell out Tuesday his vision of a new ballistic missile-defense system that he wants to build in Europe, one that's fraught with controversy over whether it can work, is necessary and is worth the large economic and political costs it's already incurring.
Bush is expected to press his case for the system in a speech here Tuesday, in meetings with Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and in a face-to-face session later this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of Eight Summit in Heilgendamm, Germany.
Putin bitterly opposes the system, employing Cold War rhetoric that's raising anxiety across Europe. On Monday he said the threat might force Russia to retarget European sites with nuclear missiles.
"If part of the strategic nuclear potential of the United States appears in Europe and, in the opinion of our military specialists, will threaten us, then we will have to take appropriate steps," Putin said in a transcript of interviews with foreign journalists, released by the Kremlin. "What kind of steps? We will have to have new targets in Europe."
NATO termed Putin's comments "unhelpful and unwelcome."
Bush says the missile-defense system—still under development and unproven—is intended to shield against an Iranian missile threat that doesn't yet exist. He wants to put a sophisticated radar system in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland to intercept a possible Iranian strike.
Putin charges that the system would upset the strategic balance of forces in Europe. He sees it as the latest in a series of U.S.-led moves to encircle Russia with an encroaching military presence.
Last week Russia successfully test-launched a new intercontinental ballistic missile that's capable of carrying multiple independently targeted warheads. A top Russian official boasted that it's capable of penetrating any defense.
"It looks like the U.S. and Russia are headed for a major collision on this issue," said Joseph Cirincione, a defense specialist for the Center for American Politics, a center-left policy institute. "Could this be the beginning of a new arms race between the U.S. and Russia? Yes, it could, because an arms race starts with a war of words."
Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, called Putin's comments Monday "not helpful." He said the administration would continue to try to convince the Russian president that a missile-defense system in Europe was in everyone's interest.
"This missile-defense cooperation we're talking about . . . is all about threats to Europe from rogue states and others," Hadley said aboard Air Force One en route to Prague. "It is not about and does not pose a threat to Russia. Hopefully, it is also not about threats from Russia."
Some experts are skeptical of Putin's protests, accusing him of using the issue to try to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Europe.
"I'd sum up that Putin has gone back to the 1980s KGB playbook," said John Hulsman, a Europe analyst for the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "He's using missile defense to divide Europe and he's using Russian oil to divide the alliance and make Europe realize their interests don't just rest with the United States."
Alexandr Vondra, the Czech Republic's deputy premier, conceded Monday that the Czech population is "not enthusiastic yet" about having components of the system on its soil, but he expects public opinion to shift.
"I don't think the strengthening of the Russian muscles will work with the people here," he said.
Simon Serfaty, a senior adviser to the European Program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a national-security research center in Washington, said Bush's stops at Prague on Monday and Tuesday and in Poland on Friday would deliver a not-too-subtle message to Putin.
"This is a distinctive message that is as easily understandable in Russian as it is in English," Serfaty said. "The message is that we're going to do what we're going to do, and your concerns about the deployment of some marginal capabilities designed for defense purposes in Central Europe are not going to impress me."
Still, Bush is trying to ease Putin's concerns. Earlier, he dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to try to assure Putin that Russia has nothing to worry about. Next month Bush will host Putin at the Bush family oceanfront compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Nevertheless, Cirincione and other analysts said the heated rhetoric between the White House and the Kremlin risked rupturing an important strategic relationship over a relatively untested system designed to deter a foe that didn't posses long-range ballistic-missile capability and wouldn't before 2015 at the earliest, according to U.S. intelligence analysts.
The Bush administration pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in June 2002 to free itself to pursue an anti-missile system. Yet in five tests of the interceptor missile since then, only one has hit its target successfully, and experts say those tests were so controlled that they didn't approach real-world complexities.
Lisbeth Gronlund, a physicist and co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the missile-defense system didn't work and was susceptible to countermeasures such as Mylar balloons or keeping the temperature of a warhead cool to avoid infrared detection.
"The truly frustrating part is that this fuss is being created by a system that has little chance of success, but definitely will drain the Pentagon's coffers at a time when funding is scarce," Victoria Samson, an analyst for the Center for Defense Information, a watchdog group for wasteful defense spending, wrote in April.
The Democratic-controlled Congress also has concerns about the system. The House of Representatives has passed a 2008 defense budget that slices $160 million from Bush's request for $310 million to begin work on the two Eastern European missile-defense sites.
The House legislation also calls for an independent study of U.S. missile-defense programs and the political, technical and budgetary considerations of constructing facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to approve its version of the 2008 defense budget this week. It will cut $85 million from the White House's request for purchasing and preparing the two sites, and also will require an independent study.
The two versions will have to be reconciled in House-Senate negotiations.
Congress is "in general putting up a yellow light for President Bush to go slow on this," Cirincione said.
This week, however, Bush is accelerating his drive for the system.
(Douglas reported from Prague, Landay from Washington. Ron Hutcheson contributed to this story from Washington.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007