( LatWp ) - President Bush arrived here Monday to begin an eight-day visit to Europe, at a time when Russia is angry over U.S. plans for a Europe-based anti-missile system and allies on the Continent are pressing Washington to back U.N. action on global warming.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters Sunday that if the United States goes ahead with building an anti-missile system in two former Soviet satellite nations, Russia could take ``retaliatory steps'' such as targeting its own weapons on sites in Europe, much as it did during the Cold War.
The escalating threats underscore the strained relations between Russia and U.S. allies in the West, a subject likely to shadow this week's summit of the Group of Eight industrial nations in Germany.
``A lot of this is political posturing, but the rhetoric has really gotten out of hand lately,'' said Andrew C. Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
While existing missile defense technology is ineffective against sophisticated Russian missiles, Kuchins said, the Russians are likely worried about improvements in the coming decades that could upset the balance of power. Also, with plans for radar sites in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland, the system is viewed by Russia as a direct intrusion into its sphere of influence.
Before leaving for Europe, Bush reiterated his view that the missile program is not aimed at Russia. Instead, he said, it is intended to protect NATO allies in Europe against missiles that could be launched by a rogue nation such as Iran. ``We have nothing to hide,'' Bush said last week in an interview with foreign reporters. ``The Cold War is over. We're now into the 21st century, where we need to deal with real threats.''
The White House last week announced plans for Bush to receive Putin at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, in early July, in hopes of stopping the deterioration of relations between the two countries. The two leaders are also scheduled to meet briefly on the sidelines of the G-8 summit on Thursday.
In recent weeks, Putin has been aiming increasingly caustic rhetoric at U.S. allies in Europe. In an interview released Monday, Putin dismissed as ``stupidity'' Britain's call for the extradition of a suspect in the killing of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko.
Litvinenko died in London in November from poisoning by a rare radioactive isotope. Britain last month said it had enough evidence to charge Andrei Lugovoy, a Russian businessman and former KGB member, in the killing and asked for his extradition, which Russian officials say their constitution prevents.
``From whatever side you look at this problem, there's one stupidity,'' Putin said in an interview with a group of journalists. ``If they didn't know (about the constitutional issue), it's a low level of competence,'' Putin said. ``And if they knew and did this, it's simply politics.'' Many legal experts say the Russian constitution gives the government leeway to send a Russian citizen abroad for trial.
The rhetorical flare-ups with Russia come as Bush is hoping to move the focus of the U.S. relationship with its European allies beyond differences over Iraq.
In a shift, Bush last week called for a series of meetings of the world's 15 top-polluting nations to set goals for combating global warming. European critics call the offer a ploy to derail U.N.-sanctioned climate change talks, and it is unclear how Bush's G-8 partners will receive his proposal.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is chairing this year's G-8, has placed at the top of the summit's agenda a proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions to half their 1990 levels by 2050 while limiting temperature rises to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Bush administration has rejected both proposals as unworkable and potentially harmful to economic growth. Still, Bush's counteroffer marks the first time the administration has endorsed the notion of setting goals to combat climate change.
``Most of the Bush presidency has been about the global war on terror and hard power, and the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq,'' said Charles A. Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. ``I think he's cycling back to a nicer, kinder America.''
Last week, Bush nominated Robert B. Zoellick, seen by many Europeans as a moderate and internationalist, to head the World Bank. The president ratcheted up economic sanctions against Sudan in an attempt to end the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. He called for a doubling of the U.S. commitment to fight AIDS in Africa and pledged a modest increase to an education fund for the world's poorest children.
Bush's policies to date have made him deeply unpopular throughout much of Europe. Tens of thousands of anti-Bush and anti-globalization demonstrators are likely to turn out during the president's time at the summit in Germany, which begins Wednesday. Large protests are also planned when the president visits Italy at the end of the week.
Bush is scheduled to deliver a speech on democracy and security in Prague on Tuesday. He then goes to the G-8 meeting for three days, before heading to Poland, Rome and Vatican City, where he is to meet with Pope Benedict XVI. He is then scheduled to visit Albania and Bulgaria before returning to Washington on Monday next week.
While Bush remains the target of criticism on the Continent, his relationship with some European leaders appears to have improved over his first term, when he clashed openly with the chancellor of Germany and the president of France.
Both countries now have new leaders, who appear to be taking a more pragmatic approach. Merkel has forged a strong relationship with Bush while French President Nicolas Sarkozy has emphasized strengthening ties with the United States.