The Cold War might be over but the rhetoric is getting pretty hot.
East-West relations are the most contentious in years. Russian President Vladimir Putin is threatening to revert to targeting his missiles on Europe. And China is joining the fray in opposing expansion of a U.S. missile defense system.
While few see a return to the Cold War era of mutual assured destruction, brinkmanship on the part of nuclear powers can be risky. Furthermore, the world is different from what it was before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and there now are more players with nuclear and other unconventional weapons at their disposal.
The United States has nearly 6,000 nuclear warheads deployed or capable of being readily deployed, followed by Russia with just over 4,000. China has been acquiring better missiles, Pakistan and India have joined the nuclear club, North Korea boasts it has a small nuclear arsenal and Iran defies U.N. sanction threats to pursue uranium enrichment.
"Russia is not going to attack Europe," Bush said Wednesday, discounting Putin's threat to retarget missiles. "There needs to be no military response, because we're not at war with Russia," Bush said in an interview with The Associated Press and other reporters in Heiligendamm,Germany.
The Baltic resort in the former East Germany is the site for this year's annual meeting of the world's seven richest industrial democracies and Russia. Earlier, in Prague, Bush emphasized that "the Cold War is over."
Other members of the Group of Eight are likely to look for ways at the meeting to try to persuade Putin to tone down his abrasive foreign policy, increasingly authoritarian steps and retreats from democracy.
Bush and other Western leaders pulled their punches last year when the summit was held in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Putin was the host. This year, however, the gloves are off.
"In Russia reforms that once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development," Bush said Tuesday in a speech in the Czech Republic celebrating democracy's global spread.
Bush also promoted his plan to deploy an anti-missile radar system in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland.
Although Bush said the missile-defense shield was not intended to threaten Russia, Putin has accused the U.S. of starting a new arms race and said if the U.S. pressed ahead with its plan, Russia would revert to targeting its missiles on Europe as it did during the Cold War. China joined Russia in saying the missile defense plan could touch off a new escalation in nuclear weapons.
The move to put the missile defense shield in former Warsaw Pact nations - purportedly as a defense against a future missile launch from Iran - clearly fanned Putin's anger.
"I think he understandably feels somewhat penned in by actions taken by the U.S. and NATO to encroach in what he saw as territory that should be under Russian influence to some extent," said Retired Army Gen. Robert Gard, a senior military fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.
Gard said he doubts that Putin sees the radar and interceptors as a threat to Russia or its retaliatory capability.
"But it's giving Putin a marvelous opportunity to sow a little dissent within the NATO alliance," Gard said.
Bush campaigned in 2000 to bring to fruition the missile-defense shield originally envisioned - on a much grander scale - by President Ronald Reagan. Once he took office, he moved to put it in place in the United States, with initial radar and inceptors at remote sites in Alaska.
That required Bush to withdraw the United States from an arms-control treaty with Moscow that would have prevented such a system. He did so in December 2001. Putin protested at the time, but only mildly. Russia was still reeling from staggering economic woes and Bush was riding high after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Now, however, with the Russian economy revitalized by rising oil prices - Russia's oil-and-gas reserves are among the world's largest - and much of its foreign debt paid off, Putin, who is popular at home, has become much more assertive in dealing with a U.S. president whose own popularity has plummeted amid growing frustration over the Iraq war.
While the current tensions do not come close to approaching Cold War levels, "fundamentally what we see now is a clash with a Russian state that believes that it has recovered from the difficulties of the early 1990s and is attempting to regain influence both in Europe and around the world," said Simon Serfaty, director of European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Missile defense is not the only irritant in the U.S.-Russian relationship. Moscow is unhappy about Washington's support for independence for the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo. The U.S. wants Putin to do more to press Iran to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program.
Bush is trying to temper his criticism with a gesture of friendship, inviting Putin to a July 1-2 meeting at his family's compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Putin accepted.
"I think Bush having Putin to Kennebunkport is a good thing. It limits the damage," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "But I still think it would be better to wait until we had new presidents - here and in Russia - to handle this issue."
Although Bush is moving aggressively to extend his missile-defense scheme, the clock clearly is ticking. It is doubtful the next U.S. president will be as enthusiastic about building the expensive network - whether the winner is a Democrat or a Republican.
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