EU disunity is looming over US plans to build an anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech republic, with Germany saying over the weekend that Russia should be consulted over the scheme.
Washington has asked Warsaw and Prague, two of its strongest allies, to host a system aimed at intercepting ballistic missiles fired from states in the Middle East such as Iran - a plan which has been endorsed by key Polish and Czech politicians.
The move, which would include the placing of interceptor missiles in the two central European states, has sparked strong criticism from Russia, with its president Vladimir Putin telling a Munich security conference this month that the system would "completely neutralize" the deterrence threat posed by Russia`s own nuclear missiles.
Moscow may develop an "asymmetric response" of its own to "overcome" such systems, he added.
Germany has now expressed understanding for the Russian position, with German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier telling daily Handelsblatt over the weekend that "in view of the strategic nature of these sorts of projects, I am pleading for caution and for an intensive dialogue with all the partners directly and indirectly affected."
"Because the sites for the stationing are getting nearer to Russia, one should have talked about it with Russia beforehand," Mr Steinmeier said, with reports indicating that existing US anti-missile facilities are currently limited to bases in the US itself.
The remarks of Mr Steinmeier - the former cabinet chief of ex-German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who maintained close ties with Mr Putin - were echoed by German defence minister Franz Josef Jung, who is a member of the more Russia-critical conservatives.
Mr Jung told the daily Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung that "Given our common security interests we should make sure that also in the future, NATO and Russia are developing on the basis of partnership."
Germany`s stance risks colliding with that of Poland and the Czech Republic, which have indicated they are interested in responding positively to the US request.
"We are preparing an answer that I think we will give to the American administration by diplomatic means within two weeks," Polish defence minister Aleksander Szczyglo told PAP press agency over the weekend.
Polish prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski indicated last week that "the government, the president and myself, are in favour of the anti-missile shield," according to Reuters.
Czech president Vaclav Klaus and foreign minister and Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg have come out in favour of the US scheme, but some Czech politicians are pressing for the bases to come under NATO, not just US command.
The issue risks reviving EU rifts over the transatlantic relationship which came to a height in the run-up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq - supported by ex-communist states in central Europe but opposed by a camp of states led by France and Germany.
The planned US missile shield also highlights fundamentally different perceptions within the EU of Russia.
Germany, which currently holds the presidency of the EU, is seeking closer ties with Moscow, but Poland in particular deeply mistrusts its Eastern neighbour, with Warsaw also clashing with Berlin over a planned gas pipeline between Russia and Germany bypassing Poland. - EUobserver.com