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Rice criticizes Russian response to missile defense bases

Shield meant to counter Iran threat, she says

(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

BERLIN -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday called a Russian general's warning that Poland and the Czech Republic risk being targeted if they host US missile defense bases "extremely unfortunate."

Rice also repeated assurances that the system does not threaten Russia.

General Nikolai Solovtsov, head of Russia's strategic missile forces, said Monday that Russia might train its missiles on the two countries if they accept a US proposal to base 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic.

"I think that was an extremely unfortunate comment," Rice said at a news conference in Berlin, adding that the system did not threaten Moscow's forces "and we have had the opportunity to explain that to Russia."

She said the United States has made clear to Russia that the system would be to counter any missile threat from Iran.

The system is too small to stop Russia's large nuclear arsenal, she said.

"Anyone who knows anything about this knows that there is no way that 10 interceptors . . . are a threat to Russia or that they are somehow going to diminish Russia's deterrent of thousands of warheads," Rice said.

"I think everyone understands that with a growing Iranian missile threat, which is quite pronounced, that there need to be ways to deal with that problem," she added.

The missile dispute is chilling relations between Moscow and Washington already damaged by differences over NATO's eastward expansion and US concerns over human rights in Russia.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said Moscow sees the establishment of the missile defense sites as a signal that the United States wants to gain nuclear superiority over Russia. He dismissed US assertions that it was to counter Iranian threats.

"If they talk about potential threats coming from Iran or North Korea, missile defense elements should be located in a different place," Lavrov said in an interview published yesterday in the daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta. "We can't help noting that these facilities would be capable of intercepting missiles launched from Russia."

Lavrov said that having the ability to shoot down Russian missiles could allow the United States to consider the possibility of a nuclear strike on Russia without fear of retaliation.

He referred to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that Washington quit in order to develop missile defenses, saying that it banned missile defense systems on the assumption that the fear of retaliation would prevent each nation from launching a first strike.

"Since protection from the first strike would be guaranteed, as American strategists apparently expect, another temptation arises -- to be the first to launch a strike, aware that a chance has emerged to go unpunished," Lavrov said.

The system consists of interceptor rockets that release a small kill vehicle that maneuvers into the path of oncoming warheads and destroys them in a high-speed collision. Critics say the system has not been convincingly shown to work.

The defensive shield would protect Europe and the eastern United States, complementing bases at Fort Greely, Alaska, and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, which are positioned to guard from any missile launch from North Korea.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia warned this month that the US plan risks provoking a new arms race.