Russia is not an enemy of the United States and shouldn't fear a proposed missile defense system designed to thwart a possible nuclear attack from Iran, US President George W. Bush said Tuesday.
"Russia is not the enemy," Bush said after meeting with Czech leaders in a visit en route to the G8 summit in Germany. He said he would take a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin that "we can work together on common threats."
The Kremlin is bitterly opposed to the missile shield, and Putin has warned that Russia could take "retaliatory steps" if Washington insists on building it.
Polls show more than 60 percent of Czechs are against plans to station a radar system southwest of Prague, and surveys in Poland - where 10 interceptor missiles would be based - show strong opposition there as well. Both countries are still negotiating with the US over whether to host the shield.
Bush sought to play down Russia's response, which has overshadowed his European trip.
"The Cold War is over. It ended," Bush said at the medieval Prague Castle, where he met with Czech President Vaclav Klaus and Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek.
"My message will be: 'Vladimir - I call him Vladimir - you shouldn't fear a missile defense system. As a matter of fact, why don't you cooperate with us on a missile defense system?"' Bush said.
"The people of the Czech Republic don't have to choose between being a friend of Russia or a friend of the United States. You can be both," he added.
US experts contend the shield poses no threat to Russia because the missiles involved would be purely defensive and incapable of being fitted with warheads.
Bush said the system would be coordinated with NATO. He said he would urge Putin to participate. "Please send your generals over to see how such a system would work. Send your scientists," Bush said.
Later Tuesday, Bush delivered a speech to an international conference on democracy and security at the ornate hilltop Czernin Palace before heading to Germany for the summit.
Klaus said he had frank and open discussions with Bush on the radar system, which would be placed inside the sprawling Brdy military zone southwest of Prague, "and we understand each other."
"We are aware that the US bears high responsibility for the situation in the world, and I would like to stress that the United States and President Bush have our support in that," said Klaus, whose country has deployed troops to the US-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But many ordinary Czechs worry that it could make them terrorist targets.
On Monday, several hundred people demonstrated near the castle, chanting "Shame on Bush!," carrying cardboard rockets and waving banners that read: "Bush: World Hate Tour 2007." No protests were planned for Tuesday.
US officials argue that the missile shield would protect both the United States and Europe from a rocket attack by Iran if the Islamic republic gains nuclear weapons capability. Teheran says its nuclear program is purely peaceful; the US contends it is covertly trying to build a bomb.
Russia, however, is deeply distrustful of any US missiles in Europe - particularly in nations such as the Czech Republic and Poland, both of which were in the Soviet orbit during the Cold War.
Putin said his government would consider aiming nuclear weapons at US military bases in Europe if Washington goes ahead with the shield.
In another development, Bush said he will work for the abolition of the visa duty for Czech citizens traveling to the United States. However, the abolition is naturally connected with certain security requirements, said Bush.
Topolanek said that the visa issue cannot be connected with the radar base. However, he said the US visa requirements are unjust and must be lifted. He trusts Bush's effort to strive for visa-free relations with the Czech Republic.
President Vaclav Klaus said that a solution to the visa issue would strengthen Czech-US relations.
Unlike Czechs, US citizens do not need tourist visas when traveling to the Czech Republic.
The visa regime is considered one of the few problems in the relations between the EU newcomers and the United States which has visa-free relations with 27 countries, including all old EU members except for Greece, as well as Slovenia among the newcomers.
Bush had assured Klaus at the summit in Latvia last year that he would strive for the abolition of visas for Czechs and other EU newcomers.
(China Daily, Xinhua News Agency June 6, 2007)