In January, the U.S. announced plans to deploy elements of its missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland to counter possible attacks from Iran or North Korea, whose nuclear programs have provoked serious international concerns.
Russia, which has been anxious about NATO bases that have appeared in former Communist-bloc countries and ex-Soviet republics, considers the plans to deploy anti-missile systems in Central Europe a national security threat and a destabilizing factor for Europe.
Speaking at a Friday news conference with Czech President Vaclav Klaus in Moscow, Putin highlighted the importance of the missile shield as part of the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent.
"This means a dramatic change in the security system in Europe ", he said.
The current situation closely resembles the events of the 1980s, when NATO decided to deploy U.S. Pershing II and Tomahawk missiles in Western Europe. In the event of a military confrontation between the Soviet Union and the West those missiles could have quickly destroyed the largest Russian cities, while the United States would have remained invulnerable.
The Kremlin launched at the time a worldwide protest campaign against the deployment of U.S. missiles in Europe. As a result, the former Soviet Union and the U.S. signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) December 8, 1987. The agreement came into force in June 1988 and does not have a specific duration.
The INF treaty eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (300 to 3,400 miles). By the treaty's deadline of June 1, 1991, a total of 2,692 such weapons had been destroyed, 846 by the U.S. and 1,846 by the Soviet Union.
On February 10, 2007, Putin declared that the INF Treaty no longer served Russia's interests. On February 14, Gen. Yury Baluyevsky, the chief of the Russian General Staff, said Russia could pull out of the INF unilaterally, which sounded a strong warning to the U.S. regarding its plans to deploy elements of its anti-missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who met with President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov during his recent visit to Moscow, apparently failed to convince the Russian leadership that the U.S. missile shield does not pose any threat to Russia.
President Putin said Friday that U.S. attempts to cite missile threats from so called "rogue states," including Iran and North Korea, as the reason for deploying its missile shield in Europe were "ridiculous."
"This talk about defense against terrorists is simply ridiculous," Putin said. "Terrorists use other methods, and the terrorist threat should be countered by cooperation rather than confrontation," the Russian leader said.
He reiterated that neither Iran, not North Korea have ballistic missiles with flying ranges necessary to reach either Europe or the U.S.
"There are no such missiles or systems [possessed by Iran of N. Korea] and they will not appear any time soon," Putin said, adding that Russia will use the right to ensure its national security if the decision to deploy the elements of the U.S. missile shield in Europe goes ahead.
"Of course these systems could cover Russia's territory all the way to the Urals but that would be true only if we did not take appropriate measures, which we will, as any other country would," he said.
"There will be no hysteria in Russia over any deployments," he said, "but we will take appropriate measures."
The chief of the Russian General Staff warned Washington April 24, that Russia would monitor the U.S. missile defense installations in Europe if they were ultimately deployed, and would develop an adequate response to U.S. actions.
"If we see that these installations pose a threat to Russia's national security, they will be targeted by our forces," Baluyevsky said. "What measures we are going to use - strategic, nuclear or other - is a technical issue."
But Putin reassured Friday the Czech president about trade, saying Russia would not sever economic ties with the Czech Republic even if the U.S. bases were deployed against Moscow's will.
"We will continue developing relations with Europe, with all countries, including the Czech Republic," the Russian leader said.
"But the level of threat and material damages, or even annihilation will increase manifold [with the deployment of a U.S. missile shield]," he reiterated.
The Russian president also invited Czech military experts to Russia's General Staff headquarters to discuss the U.S. plan.
"Russia has no intention of interfering in Polish or Czech internal debate, but we would like them to hear [Russia's position] explained objectively,.. in an open, transparent, and honest discussion," he said.