IMAGE: Putin meets with journalists
Dmitry Astakhov  /  AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to journalists at one of his residences outside Moscow on Friday. The editor-in-chief of the German magazine Der Spiegel, Stefan Aust, listens at right.
updated 6/4/2007 1:37:09 PM ET 2007-06-04T17:37:09

President Vladimir Putin warned that Moscow could take “retaliatory steps” if Washington proceeds with plans to build a missile defense system for Europe, including possibly aiming nuclear weapons at targets on the continent.

Speaking to foreign reporters days before he heads to Germany for the annual summit with President Bush and the other Group of Eight leaders, Putin assailed the White House plan to place a radar system in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in neighboring Poland. Washington says the system is needed to counter a potential threat from Iran.

In an interview released Monday, Putin suggested that Russia may respond to the threat by aiming its nuclear weapons at Europe.

“If a part of the strategic nuclear potential of the United States appears in Europe and, in the opinion of our military specialists, will threaten us, then we will have to take appropriate steps in response. What kind of steps? We will have to have new targets in Europe,” Putin said, according to a transcript released by the Kremlin. These could be targeted with “ballistic or cruise missiles or maybe a completely new system” he said.

Defends his credentials
Putin also defended his leadership credentials at a time when Russia is accused by the West of backsliding on democracy, taking greater state control of industry and news media, and repressing political opposition.

“I am an absolute and pure democrat,” Putin said. “There simply aren’t others like this in the world.”

On Monday, Iran’s top security official called the U.S. plans for the missile defense shield a “joke,” saying Iranian missiles do not have the capability to reach Europe.

“Claims by U.S. officials that installing a missile defense system in Europe is aimed at confronting Iranian missiles and protecting Europe against Iran is the joke of the year,” Ali Larijani told the state-run IRNA news agency.

“The range of Iran’s missiles doesn’t reach Europe at all,” IRNA quoted Larijani as saying in Iran’s first public reaction to the plans. Larijani is secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the country’s top security decision-making body.

Iran is known to possess a medium-range ballistic missile called the Shahab-3 that has a range of at least 800 miles, capable of striking Israel. In 2005, Iranian officials said they had improved the range of the Shahab-3 to 1,200 miles.

Although Western experts believe Iran is developing the Shahab-4 missile — thought to have a range between 1,200 and 1,900 miles, which would enable it to hit much of Europe — Iran has not confirmed such reports.

Iran initially acknowledged in 1999 it was developing the Shahab-4, but claimed it would be used only as a space launch vehicle for commercial satellites.

Putin told reporters that he hoped U.S. officials would change their minds regarding the missile plan, warning that Moscow was preparing a response.

“The strategic balance in the world is being upset and in order to restore this balance without creating an anti-missile defense on our territory we will be creating a system of countering that anti-missile system, which is what we are doing now,” Putin said.

Blair expresses ‘concerns’
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Russia’s warning that it could aim its missiles at Europe is worrying, but the bloc will not hesitate in expressing its displeasure.

“Europe as a whole ... does have concerns about Russian behavior and will not be shy about expressing those concerns,” he said on condition of anonymity, in line with government policy.

“What we want is a constructive relationship, but what the nature of that relationship is as much up to Russia as it is to us.”

Relations between Moscow and Washington have soured in the past year. The two former Cold War foes are at odds over Washington’s missile plans, over Russia’s conflicts with former Soviet nations — including Ukraine, Georgia and Estonia — and over U.S. concerns of democratic backsliding in Russia. The White House has made no comment on Putin’s new warning.

Blistering assessment
Putin gave a stinging critique of the U.S. and European powers.

“We look at what has been created in North America — horror, torture, homelessness, Guantanamo, detention without courts or investigation,” Putin said.

Putin, who is nine months from the end of his second and final four-year term in office, also said Russia’s presidents should serve longer terms. Immensely popular with voters — he was re-elected in 1994 with more than 71 percent of the vote — Putin has consistently rejected changing the law to allow him a third consecutive term.

But his comments to reporters from G-8 nations seemed certain to feed speculation that he would seek to stay in power beyond the spring of 2008.

“Four years is a fairly short time,” Putin said according to the transcript. “It seems to me that in today’s Russia five, six or seven years would be acceptable, but the number of terms still should be limited.”

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