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Gates scolds Russia on missile plan

He says Moscow has nothing to fear from the U.S. interceptor proposal for Europe.

November 14, 2008|Peter Spiegel | Spiegel is a Times staff writer
  • In this image released by the U.S. Defense Department, Defense Secretary Robert Gates holds a news conference after the NATO-Ukraine Consultations meeting in Tallinn, Estonia, Thursday, Nov. 13, 2007. Gates says Russia's proposal that Washington scrap its missile defense plans in Eastern Europe is unacceptable.
In this image released by the U.S. Defense Department, Defense Secretary… (U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt.…)

TALLINN, ESTONIA — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates scolded Russia's president Thursday for threatening to move short-range missiles to its border with Poland, saying the remarks were "unnecessary and misguided," particularly coming hours after the election of Barack Obama.

Angered by U.S. progress in securing agreements to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said last week that the Kremlin would move missiles into the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad if the U.S. proceeded with the program.

The remarks were "hardly the welcome a new American administration deserves," Gates said. "Russia has nothing to fear from a defensive missile shield or, for that matter, the presence of democratic nations on its periphery."

Gates made the comments at a news conference in Tallinn, Estonia's capital, after a meeting of NATO defense ministers, who discussed Ukraine's hopes of joining the alliance.

The U.S. has said the missile defense system, which comprises a tracking radar in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland, is aimed at shooting down long-range missiles launched toward Western Europe or the U.S. from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Kremlin has accused the United States of building the bases as the first step in constructing a larger system against Russian missiles.

Gates said that differences over the missile defense system were between the United States and Russia and that European countries should not be drawn into the dispute.

"Quite frankly, I'm not clear what the missiles would be for in Kaliningrad," Gates said. "The only real emerging threat on Russia's periphery is in Iran, and I don't think the Iskander missile has the range to get there from Kaliningrad."

The Western defense ministers gathered in Tallinn to discuss the membership bid of Ukraine and another former Soviet republic, Georgia. But NATO and U.S. officials acknowledged that despite the Bush administration's long-held desire to begin a formal accession process next month for the two countries, the move is looking increasingly unlikely.

Gates and other leaders of North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries went so far as to suggest that the alliance might scrap the process -- known as the membership action plan, or MAP -- in order to break a deadlock that has pitted the U.S. against some of its closest allies in Western Europe, particularly Germany.

Instead, Gates and the summit's host, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, said there might be another way to move the two countries toward joining the alliance.

"The political fetishization of MAP, as if this process were tantamount to instant membership instead of its opposite, was unfortunate," Ilves said in an address. "I think we should not over-mystify an acronym and instead deal with realities."

NATO's failure to extend the membership plan next month would be a politically sensitive setback, particularly after Russia's August invasion of Georgia, which prompted an intensified round of debate in NATO capitals about whether the West was needlessly provoking the Kremlin.

A senior Bush administration official who was involved in the talks insisted that Russia had "not succeeded in drawing a line across Europe" by dividing the alliance over its expansion.

"If the Russians see the failure to adopt MAP in December as a victory, that would be a mistake," Gates said. "There's an inevitability about it. The question now is how the process unfolds."

--

peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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