MOSCOW – Offering a chilly welcome to a high-level U.S. delegation Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to pull out of a Cold War-era nuclear arms pact and warned Washington it risked marring relations with Moscow if it forged ahead with plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
Meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates at his residence outside Moscow, Putin infused the talks with tension before the Americans had a chance to utter a word, sternly cautioning the U.S. against “moving on with your previous agreements with Eastern European nations” on missile defense without first pursuing a consensus with the Kremlin.
Putin’s contentious tone reflected a demeanor the Russian leader has increasingly employed in his dealings with the U.S., a harshness reflecting a bolder, more assertive Kremlin that, under his control, no longer sees a need for robust ties with the West.
It underscored why leaders in Washington and Europe are far from enthusiastic about signs that Putin may be devising a constitutional end-around that could keep him in power for years to come. Last week, he announced he will head up his ruling party’s ticket in the Dec. 2 parliamentary elections and possibly become Russia’s prime minister after his presidential term ends.
In recent months, Putin has obliquely likened the Bush administration to the Third Reich, resumed the Cold War-era practice of permanent long-range strategic bomber missions and actively pursued arms trade with Syria, Iran and Venezuela. As long as high oil prices continue to buoy Russia’s resurgence, Putin probably won’t change what has become a decidedly anti-American tinge to Kremlin foreign policy.
On Friday, after meeting with Putin, Rice and Gates sat down with their Russian counterparts, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, and were expected to discuss an array of contentious issues, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Kosovo independence and Russia’s recent decision to pull out of another Cold War pact, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.
Topping the list was Washington’s bid to deploy an anti-ballistic missile defense system based in the Czech Republic and Poland that is intended to shield Europe and American troops based there from a potential attack from Iran.
The Kremlin has vehemently objected, saying it remains unconvinced that Iran would have long-range missile ability anytime soon. Moreover, it fears modifications to the European system could be made in the future that would pose a threat to Russian national security.