BRUSSELS The United States and NATO on Monday criticized President Vladimir Putin's latest attack on a planned U.S. missile shield, but Western reaction was generally muted ahead of a Group of Eight encounter with Putin this week.
The Russian leader warned in an interview released on Sunday that Russia would revert to its Cold War stance of aiming missiles at Europe if Washington pursued its plan to site parts of its planned shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Putin acknowledged that such a response risked reviving an arms race in Europe but said Moscow could not be blamed because Washington had started the escalation.
"As far as I am aware, the only country speculating about targeting Europe with missiles is the Russian Federation," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.
"These kind of comments are unhelpful and unwelcome," he added of remarks that will do little to ease tensions between Russia and the West before a G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, on Wednesday where Putin will meet U.S. President George W. Bush.
U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, speaking to reporters on Bush's plane en route to the G8 summit, also described Putin's remarks as "unhelpful." "We would like to have a constructive dialogue with Russia on this issue. We have had it in the past," he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters on her way to a diplomatic conference in Panama that Putin's threat would not sway the United States and such comments hearkened back to the Cold War.
"This is 2007, not 1987," she said. "We need to drop the rhetoric ... and realize this is the United States and Russia (and) a very different period."
Reactions elsewhere in Europe reflected concern that the dispute over the U.S. plan is spiraling despite efforts by U.S. officials to soothe Russian concerns.
Asked at a news conference to comment on Putin's remarks, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would raise the matter with Putin on the sidelines of the G8 meeting.
"He called for a trusting and frank dialogue. It will for my part be frank," he told reporters of the planned encounter.
A French Foreign Ministry spokesman said locating shield components in Poland and the Czech Republic would not change the strategic balance between the United States and Russia, but added: "Given President Putin's statements, in-depth discussions seem to still be necessary to dissipate concerns that could arise."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not see a return to the Cold War. "No, Russia is our partner and I am pleased that America and Russia will use the opportunity in Heiligendamm for bilateral talks, and talk again later in the U.S," she told BBC World television.
In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman stressed U.S. arguments that it was not technically feasible for the U.S. missile shield to counter the Russian missile threat, and urged calm.
"Equally, Europe as a whole ... does have concerns with Russian behavior and will not be shy in expressing those concerns," he added.
European officials have raised concerns about reported abuses of human rights and democracy in Russia and fear Moscow is increasingly using its huge energy resources as a lever to exert influence in its region and beyond.
The United States says its shield is aimed at intercepting missile threats from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, but Russia argues there is no threat from those countries and that the system is really aimed at neutralizing
Washington has acknowledged it was slow to explain the shield to Moscow and other NATO allies. The dispute is likely to dominate a meeting of NATO defense ministers with their Russian counterpart in Brussels scheduled for late next week.
(Additional reporting by Washington, Mexico City, Paris and London bureaux)