Thu, Jun 07, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Putin's defense plan valid: experts

AFP , MOSCOW

Russian President Vladimir Putin's threat to aim missiles at Europe was a rational Russian response to US missile defense plans and other deployments that call Washington's stated intentions into question, analysts say.

His recent rhetorical offensive also marks a "line in the sand" to halt what Moscow sees as a pattern of thwarted expectations and broken promises by the US since the 1991 Soviet collapse that have left Russia feeling isolated and threatened, they say.

"The US has literally changed its military deployment in Europe," said Bob Ayers, a former US intelligence officer specializing in intelligence and security policy as an associate fellow with the London-based international policy think tank Chatham House.

"They're moving forces into bases in Poland and countries that were former members of the Warsaw Pact. In Russian eyes, here's the US superpower drawing closer and closer to their borders," he said.

"Even if the Russians were not paranoid they would have to be asking the question: Why are you doing this?" he said.

"We're not seeing a Russian action here. We're seeing a Russian reaction -- to things that we have done," he said.

Despite controversy over US plans to deploy components of a new missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, Washington insists the system is only to protect against missiles from "rogue states" like Iran or North Korea and in no way dilutes the potency of Russia's strategic deterrent.

Indeed no one claims that the 10 simple interceptor missiles Washington wants to place in Poland themselves constitute a viable defense against Russia's missile forces. But the claim that deployment of the new system "poses no threat" to Russia is disingenuous at best, analysts say.

"Any missile defense system is de facto an element of the strategic balance in the world," explained Gennady Evstafiev, former head of the proliferation department in the Russian SVR foreign intelligence service and a retired general accredited to the Russia-NATO Council until 2003.

"The Americans say `well, it's just these 10 little rockets.' But this is not the issue -- of course these things are not a threat to us," Evstafiev said. "The real issue is that no one knows what comes next. What do the Americans plan to do after that?"

It is precisely that uncertainty about how the US will proceed after it has set up the missile shield in central Europe that most worries Russia, experts say.

In his interview with newspapers from the G8 countries on the eve of this week's summit, Putin explicitly underscored the linkage between the ostensibly "harmless" US missile defense shield to be deployed in Europe and Washington's strategic nuclear deterrent.

The US plan "simply alters the entire international security configuration," Putin said.

US officials reject Putin's analysis and insist Russia has nothing to worry about.

"This missile shield is directed at other nations," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said last week.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has repeatedly -- and, in the eyes of Russian policymakers, arrogantly -- termed Russia's concerns over the missile shield "ludicrous."

But Evstafiev, now a senior adviser with the Center for Policy Studies, an independent Moscow-based security think tank, echoed comments from top Russian officials who say they do not consider their own worries to be ludicrous.

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