WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has begun to step up its efforts to build a controversial missile defense system in Eastern Europe, launching a public push in recent weeks to counter bitter opposition in Russia and overcome fears of a new arms race elsewhere on the continent.
The move, coming ahead of a major NATO meeting on the project this month, could escalate a simmering diplomatic issue into a significant international dispute, depending on Moscow's reaction and the administration's next moves in its effort to base 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar center in the Czech Republic, both formerly part of the Soviet Bloc.
The senior Pentagon official responsible for overseeing the plan said Tuesday in a briefing that the administration hoped to damp Russian opposition, but that Moscow would not be allowed to derail the project if no agreement was reached with the Kremlin.
"We think there is a benefit to cooperating with Russia; we think the threat is one that they face as well as one that we face," said Eric S. Edelman, undersecretary of Defense for policy, who returned from making the case for the system in European capitals last week. "That being said, I don't think if, for some reason, we're unable to reach a commonly agreed way ahead, that we would want to accede to Russia being able to dictate what we do bilaterally with other countries."
The missile defense system, which would be operated by American soldiers stationed in the Eastern European countries, has become one of the thorniest points of contention between Russia and the U.S., and rhetoric has escalated since December, when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates gave the go-ahead to seek formal negotiations.
The Bush administration has been pushing for a European site to expand its missile defense system for several years as a hedge against Iran. The current U.S. system, with interceptor missiles based in Alaska and California, is considered useful mainly against North Korea.
But the missile defense plan is unpopular in Europe, where long-standing suspicion of American weapon installations has been fueled by growing opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the Iraq war. Europeans also fear that the presence of a missile shield could spark a new arms race. Poland, ordinarily a staunch U.S. ally, is concerned that the plan would spur Russia to upgrade and reconfigure troop placements and missile systems.
The vehemence of Russian criticism has caught the Bush administration by surprise and raised the diplomatic stakes over the project.
In February, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin used a major address in Munich, Germany, to chastise the Bush administration over the program and warned of an "inevitable arms race" if the U.S. proceeded. Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, the chief of Russia's missile forces, later said that Moscow could resume building intermediate- and short-range missiles to target Poland and the Czech Republic if those nations agreed to allow bases on their territory.
In a telephone call to Putin last week, President Bush discussed what he sees as the program's objectives. After that phone call, Edelman said, there was a "bit of a cessation of the incessantly negative statements from Russia."
But Russian analysts said the Kremlin remains highly suspicious of the program. The U.S. has said the missile defense system would face away from Russia and toward the Middle East. Although it may not directly encroach on Russia's nuclear deterrence in the near term, Moscow fears that the system could present a longer-term threat.
"Iran won't be able, in the foreseeable future, to manufacture missile launchers with more than a 3,000-kilometer [1,800-mile] radius. How can it present an acute danger to the United States, then?" said retired Maj. Gen. Roman Popkovich, a former chairman of the defense committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament. "Maybe they are not telling us about their real strategic plans, something like being able to shoot down our missiles at takeoff."
In an opinion article published in a German newspaper after Putin's talk with Bush last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov raised similar concerns, saying that missile silos for interceptors could be converted to other uses, including to house intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Edelman said the Bush administration repeatedly has offered to cooperate with Russia on the program, including a proposal to provide Moscow access to data gathered by the antimissile radar.
Although opposition is growing within the Czech Republic, the government announced last week that it would open formal negotiations with the U.S. over basing rights. But other European leaders, including German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, have urged caution, warning that the system could split NATO and force Russia back to its old Cold War ways.