Russia threatens to strike NATO missile defense sites

by SHAUN WATERMAN May 4, 2012

Russia's top military officer warned Thursday that Moscow would strike NATO missile-defense sites in Eastern Europe before they are ready for action, if the U.S. pushes ahead with deployment.

"A decision to use destructive force pre-emptively will be taken if the situation worsens," Russian Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov said at an international missile-defense conference in Moscow attended by senior U.S. and NATO officials.

Gen. Makarov made the threat amid an apparent stalemate in talks between U.S. and Russian negotiators over the missile-defense system, part of President Obama's policy to "reset" relations with Moscow. The threat also elicited shock and derision from Western missile-defense analysts.

"It's remarkable," said James Ludes of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I. "That Makarov would make this kind of threat in a public forum is chilling."

"He must have been drunk," said Barry Blechman, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center think tank.

Calling the threat "crazy," he said, "I hope the Russian political leadership takes him to task for it."

But that seemed unlikely Thursday as Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov dismissed the missile-defense talks as fruitless.

"We have not been able to find mutually acceptable solutions at this point, and the situation is practically at a dead end," he said.

The press office at the Russian Embassy in Washington did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment.

The U.S. repeatedly has said the European missile-defense system is designed to fend off an attack by Iran, but Russia has insisted that the system would blunt its own arsenal. Moscow has proposed to jointly operate the missile shield, but NATO has rejected the offer.

Ellen Tauscher, the U.S. special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense, insisted the talks on NATO plans for a missile-defense system using radar and ground-based interceptor missiles stationed in Poland, Romania and Turkey are not stalemated.

But she acknowledged Wednesday in Moscow that recent elections in Russia and upcoming elections in the U.S. make it "pretty clear that this is a year in which we're probably not going to achieve any sort of a breakthrough."

In March, Mr. Obama privately told outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more "flexibility" to make a deal on missile defense after the election in November. Mr. Obama's comment was captured accidentally by a live microphone during a summit in Seoul.

Many critics interpreted the remark as a promise by Mr. Obama to give in to Russian demands once the political danger of doing so during an election campaign had passed.

Ms. Tauscher did not answer a question about the meaning of the president's Korea comment, but said the two leaders agreed in Seoul to continue technical-level discussions.

"We'll spend the next nine to 10 months trying to work through some of these technical aspects of what's a very complex proposal," she said.

She reiterated that the U.S.-built system is designed to shoot down only Iranian intermediate-range missiles that could hit Europe, and would not be effective against Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

In the initial stages, the system will use radar based in Turkey and ship-based Aegis missiles. In the later stages, new radar stations and ground-based interceptors in Poland and Romania will be integrated into the system.

The system, which still is being developed, is a scaled-back version of the missile shield proposed during the George W. Bush administration.

But Russian officials insist the missile-defense system will rob their nuclear deterrent of its credibility and destabilize the balance of mutually assured destruction that has persisted since the Cold War.

"A thorough analysis by the Defense Ministry's research organizations showed that once the third and fourth stages are deployed, the capability to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles will be real," Gen. Makarov said.

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