BERLIN (Reuters) - Russia took a fresh swipe at the United States on Tuesday over its missile shield plans, raising tensions on the eve of a big power summit that could also expose divisions on climate change and aid for Africa.
Meanwhile, U.S. President George W. Bush, on a European tour centred on the June 6-8 meeting of Group of Eight (G8) leaders in Germany, was preparing to give a speech in Prague that could further upset relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Speaking in Seoul, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated that U.S. plans to install a missile defence shield in central Europe to guard against what it calls "rogue states" like Iran and North Korea did not reflect military reality.
"What we all need is to join our efforts to fight real, not hypothetical, threats. And for this work, Russia is ready," Lavrov told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in the South Korean capital.
Putin, who will meet Bush at the summit, has said that if Washington pushes ahead with its plans to deploy parts of the missile shield in Poland and Czech Republic Russia will revert to targeting its missiles on Europe as it did in the Cold War.
U.S. officials said Bush, in his speech, would hail democratic strides made by former communist satellites like the Czech Republic.
It was unclear how far he would go in attacking the Kremlin over what Washington sees as moves to curb freedoms, but the White House made clear both Russia and China would be mentioned.
Verbal exchanges over the U.S. missile shield plans have set Russia and the United States on a collision course ahead of the summit in Germany, though the tradition of G8 such gatherings is to paper over differences publicly.
On Monday, U.S. and NATO officials criticised Putin for his warning to target Russian missiles on Europe. "These kind of comments are unhelpful and unwelcome," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds the rotating presidency of the G8 and will host the meeting of leaders from Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States at the elegant beach-side Kempinski Grand Hotel in Heiligendamm.
EYES ON BALI
She had hoped to secure G8 backing for new targets on cutting greenhouse gas emissions that scientists warn could prompt ever increasing heatwaves, floods and rising seas if not brought under control.
But new climate change proposals from Bush last week have shifted the focus of German "sherpas", who were meeting on Tuesday with their G8 counterparts to put the finishing touches on summit declarations to be made by the leaders.
European Union countries fear the Bush plan could sabotage efforts to produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol under the auspices of the United Nations.
They are now hoping to convince Bush to integrate his proposals with the U.N. process or send a clear signal at the summit that they do not compete with it.
The German hosts and their European partners hope the summit can give a political impetus for a U.N. climate conference due to take place in Bali, Indonesia in December.
"I welcome President George W. Bush's recent declaration that he, too, will launch an American climate initiative," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon wrote in a contribution to the International Herald Tribune on Tuesday.
"I urge that this take place within the U.N.'s global framework for discussion, so that our work may be complementary and mutually reinforcing," he added.
Informal meetings of the world's top industrial powers date back to 1975, when the G6 (Canada joined in 1976 and Russia in 1998) gathered in Rambouillet, France, to coordinate economic policy following a global oil crisis and the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates.
In Heiligendamm, the leaders will discuss foreign policy issues including Iran's nuclear programme, Middle East peace, Sudan and Kosovo.
The German hosts are also aiming to secure new G8 pledges on development aid and AIDS funding for Africa, but differences were evident before the summit even began.
Anti-poverty campaigner Bob Geldof told Reuters on Monday that Canada was blocking an agreement that would reconfirm aid commitments made at a 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland.
"All our information says they are refusing point blank to allow concrete figures," said Geldof. "They are very, very far behind what they said they would do at Gleneagles."
Canada quickly rejected the allegations, saying Geldof did not know what he was talking about.