boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Putin hears echoes of Cuba missile crisis

Says US plan poses threat at Russian border

MAFRA, Portugal - President Vladimir V. Putin yesterday evoked one of the most dangerous confrontations of the Cold War to highlight Russian opposition to a proposed US missile defense system in Europe, comparing it to the Cuban missile crisis of 45 years ago.

The comments - made at the end of a summit between Russia and the European Union that failed to resolve several festering disputes - were the latest in a series of belligerent statements from Putin.

Emboldened by oil- and gas-fueled economic clout, Russia is increasingly at odds with Washington and much of Europe on issues ranging from Iran and Kosovo to energy supplies and human rights.

Putin used a news conference at the summit's conclusion to reiterate Russia's stalwart opposition to US plans to put elements of a missile defense system in the former Soviet bloc countries of Poland and the Czech Republic - both of which are now NATO members.

"Analogous actions by the Soviet Union, when it deployed missiles in Cuba, prompted the 'Caribbean crisis,' " Putin said, using the Russian term for the Cuban missile crisis.

"For us the situation is technologically very similar. We have withdrawn the remains of our bases from Vietnam, from Cuba, and have liquidated everything there, while at our borders, such threats against our country are being created," he said.

The October 1962 crisis erupted when President Kennedy demanded that Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev remove his nuclear missiles from Cuba because they could have been used to launch a close-range attack on the United States. The Americans imposed a naval blockade on Cuba, and the world teetered on the edge of war before the Soviets backed down.

Putin also suggested that the tension was much lower than in 1962 because the United States and Russia are now "partners," not Cold War enemies.

His relationship with President Bush, helps solve problems, Putin said, calling him a friend.

The Russian leader said there has been no concrete US response to his counterproposals for cooperation on missile defense, but added that the United States is now listening to Russia's concerns and trying to address them.

Putin did not discuss consequences if Russia's concerns were not appeased, but a top Russian military commander said yesterday that Moscow could rapidly resume the production of short- and medium-range nuclear missiles that are now limited by nonproliferation treaties, Reuters reported.

"If there is a political decision to make such a class of missile, then it is obvious that they will be made in Russia in the near future because we have everything we need," Colonel-General Nikolai Solovtsov said in Moscow.

The US plan is part of a wider missile shield involving defenses in California and Alaska, which the United States says are to defend against any long-range missile attack from countries such as North Korea or Iran.

Russia strongly opposes the idea, contending that Iran is decades away from developing missile technology that could threaten Europe or North America, and says the US bases are aimed at spying on Russian facilities and undermining Russia's missile deterrent force.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters there were "clear historical differences between our plans to deploy a defensive missile system designed to protect against launch of missiles from rogue states, such as Iran, and the offensive nuclear-tipped capability of the missiles that were being installed in Cuba back in the 1960s."

"I don't think that they are historically analogous in any way, shape, or form," he said.

As to his future, Putin said he would not assume presidential powers if he became prime minister after finishing his term in May.

Putin is barred from seeking a third consecutive term in the March 2008 presidential election. But he suggested this month that he could become prime minister, leading to speculation that the substantial powers now invested in the presidency might be transferred to the prime minister.

"If someone thinks that I intend to move, let's say, into the government of the Russian Federation and transfer the fundamental powers there, that's not the case," Putin said. Putin will lead the ticket of the dominant United Russia party in December parliamentary elections. An overwhelming victory for the party could turn the Legislature into a new power base for Putin and give him a claim to continued authority.

Putin traveled to Portugal, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, for talks with leaders of the 27-nation bloc. But the summit yielded no major breakthroughs.

The EU and Russia have been operating without a new cooperation agreement for more than a year, during which time doubts have grown in many European capitals about the reliability of Russia's energy supplies and trade policies toward member nations

Topping the concerns is Russia's energy policy - the reliability of supplies and the intentions of state-run oil and gas companies.

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES