ROME – Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that U.S. plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe would force Moscow to target its weapons against Europe.
The threat, in an interview published Sunday in Italy's Corriere della Sera and other foreign media, marked one of Putin's most strident statements to date against the U.S. plans and came just days before he is to join President Bush and other leaders at a Group of Eight summit in Germany.
In the interview, Putin was asked whether the proposed missile defense shield would compel Moscow to direct its own missiles at locations and U.S. military sites in Europe, as during the Cold War.
"If the American nuclear potential grows in European territory, we have to give ourselves new targets in Europe," Putin said, according to Corriere. "It is up to our military to define these targets, in addition to defining the choice between ballistic and cruise missiles."
Russia has not overtly targeted Europe since agreeing after the fall of the Soviet Union not to direct missiles against specific countries, according to Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst based in Moscow. He added however, that that was simple technical matter, since a missile can be given a target within minutes.
Previously, some Russian military officials have said Moscow could aim Russian weapons at Europe-based missile systems.
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek accused Russia on Sunday of misleading the public about the planned missile defense bases in the Czech Republic and Poland to hide Russia's internal problems.
"Russia needs an outside enemy to hide problems at home," Topolanek said.
The White House had no comment Sunday on Putin's new warning, referring instead to the comments of National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, who was questioned Friday about the missile defense shield in advance of the G-8 summit.
"Of course the deployment that we're talking about in Europe is not about Russia at all," Hadley said. "It's not aimed at Russia. ... It's a very limited capability about other states, like Iran, who are developing ballistic missiles and potentially the weapons of mass destruction that those missiles could deliver."
The Polish president insisted the missile shield was purely "to prevent attacks, neutralize their effects."
"But I don't wonder at Russian present tactics because the issue is whether the Russian state .... will regain influence or not," Poland's President Lech Kaczynski told Polish reporters in Rome.
The United States made a formal request in January to place a radar base in a military area southwest of Prague, Czech Republic, and 10 interceptor missiles in neighboring Poland as part of plans for a missile defense shield that Washington says would protect against a potential threat from Iran.
The U.S. plans have brought a strong reaction from Russia, which accuses the United States of threatening Russian territory and of trying to start a new arms race.
Putin was interviewed Friday at his dacha by journalists from each of the G-8 countries, Corriere said.
The three-day summit, Wednesday to Friday at the Baltic Sea resort of Heiligendamm, will bring together leaders of the United States, Britain, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Russia, and Japan.