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Bush defends missile plan

US-Russia ties further strained

WASHINGTON -- President Bush defended his plan to build a missile defense system in Russia's backyard, even though it has sparked fresh tensions in the already frayed Washington-Moscow relationship.

Bush suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to get over it. Russia has reacted to the new system by unleashing several rounds of harsh rhetoric against the United States.

"The Cold War is over," Bush told foreign reporters in an interview that previewed an eight-day trip to Europe next week. "We're now into the 21st century, where we need to deal with the true threats, which are threats of radical extremists who will kill to advance an ideology, and the threats of proliferation."

Bush's eight-day trip, which begins Monday, will include meetings with Putin during and on the sidelines of a summit in Germany of leading industrialized nations. Hoping to normalize relations, the president also this week invited Putin to come to his family's summer compound on the Maine coast July 1-2, a month after the Group of Eight meeting.

But Bush also is making stops before and after the summit that could further enflame his Russian counterpart. Bush is visiting Poland and the Czech Republic, former Soviet satellite states that are now NATO members, where Bush wants to base parts of the missile defense system.

The president said in the Thursday interviews that part of the reason for his trip was "to allay people's fears" about the system. "He thinks it's aimed at him. It's not," Bush said of Putin.

Instead, he said, the system is meant to protect NATO allies against hostile regimes. "Russia is not hostile. Russia is a friend."

US officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have recently stepped up diplomacy with the Russians to argue that Iran is the system's target. The West suspects Tehran's nuclear program is aimed not at producing energy but atomic bombs.

"I'm deeply concerned about Iran having a nuclear weapon that could fly toward Europe, or, for that matter, toward any other allies," Bush said. "And we don't want to ever have ourselves in a position where the world could become blackmailed. And, therefore, one way to deal with this issue is through a missile defense system."

The president voiced no regrets about sparking the fracas with Russia over his decision.

Putin said Thursday that tests of new Russian missiles were a response to the planned deployment of US missile defense installations and other forces in Europe. Russia has not bought the argument that the US system is aimed elsewhere.

In a clear reference to the United States, Putin harshly criticized "imperialism" in global affairs and warned that Russia will strengthen its military potential to maintain a global strategic balance.

"It wasn't us who initiated a new round of arms race," Putin said after Kremlin talks with Greek President Karolos Papoulias.

Bush said in an interview yesterday with BNT of Bulgaria that he wants to diffuse what he called "the latest flare-up" and is "working hard to . . . prevent any escalation of rhetoric."

But he also said that he reserves the right to take Russia to task when needed and is "not afraid to do so."

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