PRAGUE, Czech Republic – President Bush gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a double-edged message Tuesday, reassuring him that he has nothing to fear from a missile-defense system that he abhors, then slapping him verbally for backsliding on democratic reforms.
Bush’s words threatened to inflame his already tense relationship with Putin and overshadow the Group of Eight Summit that opens today in Germany.
Bush said he intends to tell Putin when the two leaders meet Thursday at the G-8 summit that the U.S. plan to build a Europe-based missile-defense system poses no threat to Russia.
“My message will be, Vladimir – I call him Vladimir – that you shouldn’t fear a missile-defense system,” Bush said after meeting with Czech leaders at the ninth-century Prague Castle. “As a matter of fact, why don’t you cooperate with us on a missile-defense system? Why don’t you participate with the United States?”
After thus extending an olive branch, Bush criticized Putin for repealing democratic reforms in Russia, during a speech extolling the expansion of democracy around the world.
“In Russia, reforms that were once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development,” Bush said. “Part of a good relationship is the ability to talk openly about our disagreements.”
Putin has been livid about the Bush administration’s drive to install a sophisticated radar system in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland as part of a system that the White House says is needed to block a nuclear attack from a “rogue” nation such as Iran – which doesn’t have a long-range ballistic missile and won’t for at least eight years, according to U.S. intelligence reports.
Putin argues that the system could be used against Russian missiles and would upset the balance of forces in Europe. He has opposed it with increasingly Cold War-like rhetoric. In an interview with foreign journalists published Monday, Putin threatened to point Russian missiles at European sites if the White House installs the system in Europe.
Bush has been trying to soothe Putin. On Tuesday, he invited Putin to send Russian generals to the United States to see how the system would work. Next month he’ll host the Russian president at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Putin isn’t the only one who’s worried about the missile-defense system. Polls show that more than 60 percent of Czechs oppose it, and more than 1,000 people protested it last weekend in Prague.
“The Cold War is over,” Bush said in his speech Tuesday. “The people of the Czech Republic don’t have to choose between being a friend to the United States or a friend with Russia. You can be both.”
The Czech government supports the missile-defense system even though its people don’t.
Bush spoke on his final day in Prague, his first stop on a six-nation, eight-day European tour. He left the Czech capital Tuesday afternoon for the Baltic seaside resort of Heiligendamm, Germany, for the two-day G-8 summit, a meeting of leaders from eight of the world’s leading industrialized nations.
The summit will take place under heavy security, as rock-throwing violence from an estimated 1,000 ninja-clad anarchists last weekend has become the talk of Germany. Their numbers are expected to expand to 2,500 or so today.