Russia's Putin issues missile warning to Ukraine
By Christian Lowe
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia could train its nuclear missiles on Ukraine if the pro-Western state joins NATO, President Vladimir Putin warned on Tuesday in a new attack on the alliance's expansion towards Russia's borders.
But Moscow said Putin would go to a NATO summit in April, signaling a desire to heal rifts with the bloc on one of his last international engagements before leaving office a month later.
Putin gave his missile warning just after a more reassuring step -- he and Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko settled a gas debt row at talks in the Kremlin, minutes before a Moscow-imposed deadline on Kiev to pay up or face supply cuts.
Speaking beside Yushchenko, Putin said Kiev's quest for alliance membership could lead to NATO bases on its soil, and Washington stationing elements of its missile defence shield there.
"I am not only terrified to utter this, it is scary even to think that Russia, in response to a possible deployment of the missile shield in Ukraine..., would have to target its offensive rocket systems at Ukraine," Putin said.
He said it was Ukraine's sovereign right to decide whether to join NATO.
But he added membership would "lead to real consequences: bases, the missile shield, which we believe has as its aim the neutralization of our nuclear missile capability, and which presents Russia with the need to take retaliatory measures."
Ukraine's administration has applied to NATO for a Membership Action Plan, the first step on the path to accession. NATO members are expected to discuss the application, and one from ex-Soviet Georgia, at the Bucharest summit.
Putin, whose anointed successor looks likely to win presidential elections in March, warned last year Russia might turn its missiles to face Poland and the Czech Republic if they went ahead with plans to host elements of the missile shield.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Putin had accepted an invitation to attend a NATO-Russia Council summit in Bucharest on April 2-4, part of the program of a broader NATO summit. NATO confirmed it.
"This is yet another demonstration of Russia's openness on all issues," Lavrov said. "Strategic partnership between Russia and the European Union could become one of the pillars of the new Europe, without dividing lines."
A foreign policy analyst said Putin may use the NATO summit to set a more conciliatory tone to relations with the alliance.
That would counter-balance a speech Putin made a year ago at a security conference in Munich in which he accused Washington of unleashing a new arms race. Some policymakers listening to the speech drew parallels with the Cold War.
The Bucharest summit "is an excellent opportunity to make another historic speech to draw a line under his (Putin's) foreign policy that is not the Munich speech but something more constructive," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
(Additional reporting by Mark John in Brussels, Jonathan Lynn in Geneva and Oleg Shchedrov, Dmitry Solovyov and Conor Sweeney in Moscow)
(Writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Richard Meares)