U.S.: Defense shield no threat to Russia
By WILLIAM J. KOLE, Associated Press Writer
VIENNA, Austria - Russia has nothing to fear from a missile defense shield the United States wants to deploy in Eastern Europe because the rockets would be too light, too slow and too close to pose a threat, a U.S. envoy said Friday.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mark Pekala urged European leaders to get behind the plan to put 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. He said the system would help protect the U.S. and its allies from the real menace: an Iranian airstrike.
"We consider the threat from the Middle East very real and quite urgent," Pekala told reporters.
His stop was the latest in a flurry of U.S. diplomatic consultations aimed at shoring up support across Europe for the shield - a $3.5 billion initiative that Russia bitterly contends could touch off a new arms race.
Recent polls suggest most Poles oppose the idea of hosting the interceptors, and Czechs have staged several small but boisterous protests against plans to station radars in their country.
Lawmakers in Ukraine were the latest to balk, adopting a resolution Thursday in parliament that declared the system a threat to the former Soviet republic's national security.
But Pekala, in Vienna to discuss the proposal with ambassadors to the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, insisted the Russians and their neighbors have nothing to worry about.
The interceptors will weigh just 165 pounds and are not technically able to carry warheads, Pekala said. He said they would be no match for the "hundreds of missiles and thousands of warheads" in Moscow's arsenal.
"It's absolutely untrue that they've upset the strategic balance," he said. "I certainly don't think there's a new Cold War here. We had one, and that was enough, and I think both sides think that."
Washington hopes the parliaments of both countries will approve the system by the end of the year. U.S. officials want it operational by 2012 - three years before Iran could potentially have a long-range missile capable of striking European targets, according to defense estimates.
The system would not provide complete security, Pekala conceded, estimating its chances of destroying a London-bound Iranian missile at between 60 percent and 80 percent. But even that "is a whole lot better than zero percent," he said, adding that the shield would have significant value as a deterrent.
Pekala's visit followed a stop in Warsaw earlier this week by Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried intended to reassure Polish officials that the bases are designed purely to enhance European security against the potential threat from Iran.
The U.S. and its European allies suspect Iran is covertly trying to produce nuclear weapons, and there are fears that it could tip a long-range missile with a nuclear warhead as early as 2015. Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and geared solely toward producing electricity.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country holds the rotating European Union presidency and chairs the Group of Eight industrialized nations, urged the U.S. this week to count the political and diplomatic costs before pushing ahead with the plan.
Steinmeier warned of the potential for a new Cold War, "even if only conducted in words," and suggested that Washington consider teaming up with Moscow on a possible joint missile defense.
Pekala said extensive talks were under way with Moscow, and that U.S. officials were open to the idea of merging the missile shield with a Russian system.
Neither Poland nor the Czech Republic has been promised anything apart from "deeper and stronger" relations with the U.S. in exchange for hosting the system, Pekala said.
"There's no quid pro quo," he said.
Some Czechs and Poles fear hosting the system could make them more of a terrorist target. But Pekala played down those fears.
"In the world we live in, there's no guarantee that terrorists won't attack you whether you have a missile defense system or not," he said.
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