Putin threatens to aim missiles at Ukraine

The Russian president warns of a new arms race over Ukraine's NATO membership and possible hosting of US missile defense shield.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to point the country's missiles at neighboring Ukraine if the country joins NATO and allows the United States to deploy its missile defense shield within its borders. Coming days after a hawkish speech in which Mr. Putin blamed the United States for sparking a new arms race, Putin's comments were the latest sign of rising tensions with the West as Russia reasserts itself on the world stage.

At a press conference in Moscow with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Putin warned of retaliatory actions, reports The Washington Post.

According to the Associated Press, the "warning was Putin's strongest to date about Kiev's efforts to join the Western alliance."

Yushchenko, for whom joining the Western alliance is a priority, responded by asserting Ukraine's independence to act as it pleases, while seeking to soothe Russian worries, reported England's Daily Telegraph.

But, on Wednesday, Yushchenko urged parliament to take constitutional action to prevent NATO military bases should it receive NATO membership, reports Russia's state-run RIA Novosti.

The Russian threat comes days after Putin warned of a new arms race, provoked by Western military expansion in eastern European countries traditionally within Russia's sphere of influence.

In a televised speech last Friday, less than a month before the election that will see Putin hand power to his chosen successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the outgoing President warned against interference in Russia's neighborhood, reports the International Herald Tribune:

Putin has long opposed the expansion of the US missile defense system. The system has been primarily aimed at threats from states such as North Korea and Iran, and not Russia, according to a 2007 presentation overview by the United States Missile Defense Agency. The project's stated strategic objective is to

But the BBC says that the US plan to incorporate 10 interceptor missiles in Poland as well as an associated radar in the Czech Republic is seen in Russia as both a strategic challenge to its regional dominance and a direct military threat.

The recent comments and actions of Putin, who is expected to become prime minister under his protégé, Mr. Medvedev, have prompted a wave of criticism in the West.

An editorial is today's New York Times criticises the "strange paranoia and vindictiveness of Mr. Putin," condemning "the setbacks to the rule of law, the systematic hounding of rivals and critics, the settling of scores, the constant snarling at the West."

A Financial Times op-ed today is equally scathing:

This month's Foreign Affairs says Putin's centralization of power and economic growth has held Russia back.

Nonetheless, with tension growing between Russia and the West and with fears that Russia could hold Europe hostage by holding back energy supplies, both sides have sought to bridge the divide, reports the BBC.

On Sunday, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov highlighted a history of US-Russian cooperation on security issues in a speech that contrasted sharply with Putin's tone, reports the International Herald Tribune.

The Moscow Times reported that Putin will, against expectations, attend a NATO summit in April to discuss the various differences. NATO welcomed the announcement, saying,

It made sense in terms of clearing the air. ... There is a lot to discuss.

Putin's decision to accept NATO's invitation came as a surprise, given his bristling criticism of the alliance. Most recently, Putin lashed out at NATO in a speech Friday to a session of the State Council. He noted that some NATO member states were increasing their defense expenditures and that "NATO is expanding, nearing the borders of the Russian Federation."

Other than the missile defense system and expansion into eastern Europe, friction has also emerged over the status of Kosovo reports the Financial Times.

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