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US: Missile Defense in Europe No Threat to Russia

The United States has reiterated that its planned missile defense system for Europe, aimed at Iran, will not threaten Russia’s strategic missile deterrent. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev warned Wednesday that Moscow will take counter-measures against the U.S. system being developed with NATO.

The Obama administration is again reassuring Russia about the missile defense plan but also saying the project is going well and will not be limited or changed.

The comments from the White House and State Department followed a speech by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in which he renewed threats by Moscow to counter the program by putting missiles near NATO countries and possibly leaving the new U.S.-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction accord, or New-START.

U.S. plans for missile defenses in Europe to counter what is seen as an emerging threat from Iran have long been an irritant in relations with Moscow.

In 2009, the Obama administration scrapped plans for a system of radars and interceptors based in Poland and the Czech Republic for a less-ambitious project with sites in Poland, Romania and perhaps other NATO countries.

But Wednesday’s televised speech by Mr. Medvedev made clear Moscow’s concerns remain. He revived a threat to counter the U.S. plan with missiles in the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad and said the dispute could be “a basis” for Moscow leaving New-START.

A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, said Russia has been assured repeatedly the envisaged system does not and cannot threaten Russia’s large strategic arsenal, and that the United States will not in any way limit of change the program.

State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said a U.S. offer to bring Moscow into the anti-missile program stands and that the administration remains committed to improved relations overall. “We’ve seen these comments before. Again, our focus is on cooperation, is on making clear to Russian authorities that this is in no way a system that directed at Russia. It’s directed as I said to a threat to our allies in Europe, and in Russia, in fact from Iran," he said.

Arms control expert Bruce MacDonald, a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says Moscow is understandably sensitive about any potential threat to its strategic deterrent which, he said, helps define its big-power status.

But the former White House and Congressional aide said Russian concerns about the missile defense plan are largely not valid. “The Russians have a lot of respect for our technological capabilities, and they tend to be, I think, hyper-sensitive on this issue. And they are imagining things that are just extremely unlikely to happen. We’re not going to suddenly develop a huge missile defense system. On the very remote chance that we would, they’d have plenty of time to accommodate or respond to it, since this would take a long time," he said.

In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was very disappointed over the Medvedev remarks which he said are inconsistent with the strategic relationship Russia and NATO have agreed to pursue.