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US rejects Kremlin's call to scrap missile shield
Antagonism between the Kremlin and the Bush administration over the deployment of missile systems in Europe deepened yesterday after the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, accused President Dmitry Medvedev of "provocative, unnecessary and misguided" plans to station short-range ballistic missiles in Russia's Baltic exclave, Kaliningrad.
Speaking on a visit to Estonia, Gates said the plans to place Iskander-M missiles in eastern Europe were "hardly the welcome a new American administration deserves".
Medvedev revealed his intention to move Iskander-M tactical missiles into Kaliningrad during his first annual speech to parliament on November 5 - hours after Barack Obama was elected. He said the deployment was necessary to "neutralise" interceptor missiles and a radar station that Washington wants to site in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The announcement caused anger in Washington, with Nato and the EU both expressing trenchant opposition. There were attempts at conciliation at the weekend, when Medvedev and Obama spoke on the telephone, expressing a wish to meet soon and mend relations. Separately, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, met on the sidelines of Middle East peace talks in Egypt for what the state department described as "good and productive" discussions.
But yesterday Gates bluntly criticised Medvedev's announcement on moving Iskanders into Kaliningrad, saying: "Such provocative remarks are unnecessary and misguided." The US defence secretary rejected calls by the Kremlin for Washington to throw out its European missile shield plans, saying the shield was vital to meet threats from rogue states such as Iran, which had made "active efforts" to develop nuclear weapons.
"Frankly I'm not sure what the [Russian] missiles in Kaliningrad would be for," he told journalists in the Estonian capital, Tallinn. "After all, the only real emerging threat to Russia's periphery is Iran, and I don't think the Iskander missile has the range to get there from Kaliningrad."
Moscow has made clear that its weapons in the Baltic exclave would be pointed at the US defence shield, which it believes could be used offensively against Russia. However, earlier yesterday Medvedev suggested in an interview with French journalists that the Kremlin might review its Kaliningrad deployment if Washington backed off on its missile defence plans.
"We could reverse the decision if the new US administration re-examined the effectiveness of deploying these rockets and radars," Medvedev said. "In particular, how adequate a means they would really be for reacting to threats from so-called rogue states."
Gates also pushed strongly yesterday for Ukraine to be given a roadmap to Nato membership at a meeting of the alliance's ministers next month. The Germans and French are strongly opposed to this. But Jaak Aaviksoo, the Estonian defence minister, told the Guardian after seeing Gates: "The US was very persistent on this."
He said of Moscow's threat to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad: "When you put missiles near our borders, it's not a friendly move. I think the Russians will reconsider."
In a nutshell
In a reminder of tensions over Georgia yesterday, an adviser to French president Nicolas Sarkozy revealed details of a conversation between his boss and the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin. The two met in Moscow on August 12, just days after war had erupted between Russia and Georgia over breakaway South Ossetia. "I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls," Putin said of the Georgian leader, Mikheil Saakashvili. Sarkozy responded: "Hang him?" Putin responded: "Why not? The Americans hanged Saddam." Sarkozy replied: "Yes, but do you want to end up like Bush?" Putin said: "You have scored a point there."