Moscow Threatens Over Shield

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Pentagon officials were left scratching their heads late Tuesday over the latest ominous anti-U.S.-missile-shield pronouncement from the Russian foreign ministry. It warned of unspecified military action shortly after the nearby Czech Republic agreed to be the new home of an aging missile-defense radar system that has spent the last nine years at Kwajalein Atoll in the south Pacific. "We will be forced to react not with diplomatic, but with military-technical methods" if the shield is ever deployed, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The tracking radar slated to move to the Czech Republic would be linked to 10 interceptor missiles Washington hopes to base in Poland. Russia has threatened to re-aim its missiles at those sites if the system is built.

Defense Department officials were exasperated and frustrated as, once again, the Russian government denounced the expansion of the fledgling U.S. missile shield that U.S. officials maintain is designed only to protect parts of Europe as well as the United States. "No one's name [in the Russian government] is attached to it," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told TIME shortly after the Russians released their saber-rattling statement. "It's being reported as a foreign ministry statement — and it's got strange wording in it like 'We would be forced to react with military resources' or 'technical means' — what does that mean?"

Ever since the U.S. announced several years ago that it planned to spread its missile-defense system to Europe, Moscow has seen it as a ploy designed to emasculate its last remaining claim to superpower status: its nuclear might. In the two decades since the Soviet Unionís demise, its slide into international irrelevancy has only been slowed by its nuclear arsenal—and the recent rise in oil prices, which has enabled Russia to begin to climb out of its post-superpower depression.

Moscow lobbed this latest verbal missile toward Washington after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Czech counterpart, Karel Schwarzenberg, signed an agreement in Prague for the radar's move, designed to warn of missiles headed toward Europe from Iran. "We face with the Iranians, and so do our allies and friends, a growing missile threat that is growing ever longer and ever deeper and where the Iranian appetite for nuclear technology to this point is still unchecked," Rice said after inking the pact. "It's hard for me to believe that an American president is not going to want to have the capability to defend our territory [and] the territory of our allies."

Pentagon officials have wooed the Russians with enticements to get them to participate in the shield, saying that Tehran threatens Moscow as well as other Eurasian nations. Iran's newest missile, the intermediate range Shahab 3, can reach European capitals, although marrying it to a nuclear warhead remains a daunting technical challenge, U.S. officials say. Moscow has steadfastly declined to cooperate, saying the shield actually is a ploy to blunt Russia's own missile force. "This system is not designed to counter a Russian threat — this system is designed to counter what is an emerging threat from the Middle East," Whitman says. "We have been very transparent with respect to our intent and purpose — we have offered the Russians a very attractive, robust collaboration opportunity and we have also offered what is unprecedented transparency."

While President Bush is eager to cement the European element of the missile-defense shield before he leaves office, actually building and deploying it would fall to his successor. Presumptive Republican nominee Arizona Sen. John McCain backs the proposal, while Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has been less supportive. What really matters isn't what either does — or what the Russians say — but what the Iranians do. The closer Tehran is believed to having a nuclear weapon, Pentagon officials say, the more inevitable such a Euroshield becomes.