WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves on Monday for the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Georgia and perhaps Poland on a trip that illustrates their deepening U.S. ties despite Russia's objections.
The centrepiece of Rice's trip is Tuesday's signing of an accord in Prague to base radar in the Czech Republic as part of a missile shield to protect the United States and its allies from attack by what it calls "rogue" states, including Iran.
Before leaving for Prague on Monday evening, Rice met Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski in Washington in the hopes of nailing down an agreement to base 10 interceptors in Poland as part of the missile defence shield.
If a deal can be struck in time, she could visit Warsaw on Thursday to sign an agreement with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk's government, which on Friday rejected a tentative accord hammered out by the two sides' negotiators.
The subtext of Rice's visit is the desire to further cement links with countries that were once firmly in the Soviet orbit -- notably with the hardware necessary for a missile defence shield that Russia bitterly opposes.
Russian officials have repeatedly criticized Washington's planned European missile defence plans, arguing that it could be expanded to undermine Russia's nuclear deterrent.
While Russian officials have threatened to target Poland and the Czech Republic if they go ahead with the missile defence shield, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev struck a conciliatory note at the Group of Eight summit in Japan, saying that the United States and Russia agree on many issues.
"Certainly there are others with respect to European affairs and this missile defence where we have differences," Medvedev said after meeting U.S. President George W. Bush. "We would like to agree on these matters as well."
Former Russian President Vladimir Putin had said Russia could take military measures if Washington went ahead with the missile defence plan but he also proposed creating a joint European advance warning system and offered the use of Russia's radar in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.
THREAT TO RUSSIA?
Andrew Kutchins, a Russia analyst with Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies thinktank, said Moscow had found it difficult to reconcile the views of those who saw the Western moves as a direct threat and those who did not.
"On the one hand they can take the view that NATO is expanding, bases are coming closer to them, missile defence systems are coming closer to them -- they can see this in a threatening way," Kutchins said.
On the other hand, Kutchins added, "The threats are not coming from Europe or the United States."
In another gesture that appears partly directed toward Moscow, Rice plans to visit the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
U.S. officials said she wished to demonstrate Washington's support for Georgia's political and economic reforms and its integration into Western institutions, including NATO.
NATO in April rebuffed U.S. demands the ex-Soviet republic be put on an immediate path for membership but the Western security alliance made clear Georgia would one day join.
Rice's visit to the Georgian capital follows months of escalating tensions between Tbilisi and Georgia's breakaway region Abkhazia.
U.S. officials have been dismayed by a series of steps that Moscow has taken towards Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia, including Russia's announcement that it would establish legal links with both and send more troops to Abkhazia without Tbilisi's consent.
Russia provides financial aid and has peacekeepers in Abkhazia. Georgia accuses Moscow of trying to annex the impoverished Black Sea region.
"One component of her trip is to signal our support for a peaceful resolution of these issues and certainly, we will encourage the Georgian government to work in good faith, as well as other parties to work in good faith, and that includes Russia," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
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