Putin makes offer on missile defense

The Baltimore Sun

HEILIGENDAMM, GERMANY -- Russian President Vladimir V. Putin proposed yesterday that a missile-defense radar system in Azerbaijan be used to protect Europe from a possible future attack by Iran, and President Bush said the United States and Russia would begin talks aimed at finding areas of strategic cooperation.

The surprise proposal from Putin, and the reaction from Bush and other U.S. officials, suggested that the two leaders were seeking ways to step back from their confrontation over a U.S. plan to deploy a missile defense network in Poland and the Czech Republic.

U.S. officials had been preparing for a confrontational meeting with the Russian president. Bush did not immediately accept Putin's offer but said that Putin had "made some interesting suggestions."

Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, characterized Putin's idea as "bold" and "interesting."

Putin made his pitch at a 45-minute meeting with Bush during a break in the Group of Eight summit of the world's leading industrialized nations.

Putin's offer to cooperate on an anti-missile program and Bush's announcement that each country would send top military figures and diplomats to what he called "a serious set of strategic discussions" overshadowed other developments at the summit.

Bush has said that interceptors he has planned to deploy in Poland and radar units destined for the Czech Republic were intended to thwart possible long-range missiles from Iran.

The two-nation system would comprise the third site for Washington's global missile-defense system. The other two, which are being tested in central California and Alaska, are meant to defend against a possible attack from North Korea.

Iran has medium-range missiles and is thought to be trying to develop long-range weapons capable of reaching targets beyond the Middle East. The United States says Iran is also trying to develop a nuclear weapon.

Putin has said that the Bush proposal could threaten Russia and lead him to aim Russian missiles at Europe.

Bush appeared to be relaxed and smiled frequently while Putin spoke to reporters.

He said Putin is "concerned that the missile defense system is not an act that a friend would do."

Putin said he had proposed to Bush that rather than deploy a new system, the United States rely instead on "the radar station rented by us in Azerbaijan."

Putin said that system would protect all of Europe rather than just part of the continent, as the one planned by the United States would do.

"This will fully exclude the possibility for the missile debris to fall on European states, because they will fall in the ocean," he said.

Uncertain how the Azerbaijan system would fit in with the U.S. plan, Hadley said, "We're all going to have to see."

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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