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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Fails to Ease Russian Nerves

ReutersHadley meeting Thursday in Moscow.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday dismissed Washington's assurances that a planned missile defense system in Eastern and Central Europe was not intended to prevent an attack from Russia.

"The tracking stations and missile interceptors there are not needed because the trajectories of hypothetical missiles that could fly out of Iran and North Korea lie in an absolutely different direction," Lavrov said in remarks carried on the TV Center channel.

Lavrov is the latest in a series of top Russian officials to criticize the system, which would include a radar installation in the Czech Republic and 10 missile interceptors in Poland in addition to a radar station and missile interceptors already deployed in Alaska.

Washington maintains that the system is designed to protect the United States and its NATO allies in Europe from ballistic missiles fired by so-called rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea.

The commander of Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces, General Nikolai Solovtsov, said last week that Russia might target the new installations in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The proposed system has become a major irritant in U.S.-Russian relations, not least because the new installations would be deployed in two former Soviet satellite states, in contrast to post-Cold War Western promises that NATO military infrastructure would not be placed in new member states when the alliance moved eastward.

Lavrov made clear on Sunday that Russia was no longer inclined to take U.S. assurances at face value.

"We were told that NATO would not expand and that no military infrastructure would be placed in Eastern Europe," Lavrov said on TV Center. "The time for talking is past. We will now decide how to ensure our security based on the facts."

In its efforts to assuage Russian concerns, the White House sent National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley to Moscow last week.

"[The system] is not directed in any way against Russia," Hadley told reporters Thursday. "It is directed to certain countries that are developing both ballistic missiles and have shown a desire to pursue nuclear weapons."

Also last week, General Henry Obering, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, and Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, delivered the same message to foreign reporters in Washington.

While they have tried to strike a conciliatory tone in their remarks on the planned system, U.S. officials have struggled to contain their indignation at a speech made earlier this month in Munich by President Vladimir Putin, in which he sharply criticized U.S. foreign policy.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said Putin's speech was "extraordinary."

In response to Solovtsov's comments, Fried said: "You don't start out by threatening nuclear holocaust against your neighbors."

Experts say, however, that the planned placement of 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a single radar station in the Czech Republic would not seriously undermine Russia's nuclear capability.

That capability could be impaired, however, if the United States were to expand its missile defense system along with installing a new generation of interceptors.

In that case, the system could seriously reduce the effectiveness of Russia's nuclear deterrent, giving Washington a powerful bargaining chip in any negotiations with Moscow, said Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow branch of the Center for Defense Information, a U.S. think tank.

"This system could be on line within 20 years, and the current conflict with Iran could be resolved by then. The infrastructure, however, would remain in place long after the ostensible reason for building it was gone. There is no guarantee that the system wouldn't be used against Russia," Safranchuk said.

Alexander Pikayev, an independent, Moscow-based defense expert, said the U.S. system was being proposed as Russia prepares to decommission hundreds of Soviet-made intercontinental ballistic missiles in a move to reduce its nuclear arsenal to roughly 1,700 warheads within a decade.

If the United States continues to develop its system and also targets Russia's early warning capacity, Russia's ability to inflict unacceptable damage on the United States after a U.S. nuclear attack could be compromised, he said.

Safranchuk said that in this scenario, the balance would be tilted in Washington's favor, causing concern that Russia could be blackmailed.

Both Safranchuk and Pikayev said the planned U.S. system was already taking a toll on relations between the two countries, and that the situation could deteriorate as both countries gear up for presidential elections next year if U.S. President George W. Bush does not respond to Putin's call to sort out their differences on this and other major issues.

Pikayev added that Russia would continue to cooperate with the United States in areas where the two countries' interests converge, such as efforts to subdue international terrorism. But Moscow could hinder or even turn against Washington on issues such as Iran's nuclear program and the U.S. presence in Central Asia if no progress is made on the missile defense question.

Kevin Ryan, a former U.S. defense attache in Moscow and now a senior research fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said the Kremlin should understand that the United States viewed the system as a way to protect its European allies from the possibility of missile attack from countries such as Iran rather than as a way to undermine the credibility of Russia's nuclear deterrent. "We have partners in Europe that want to be protected from Iran and theirs is a logical and understandable concern," Ryan, a retired general, said.

Ryan said the planned missile defense system would "become a major constraint on the Russian nuclear force" only if Russia were to reduce its strategic nuclear arsenal to a total of hundreds of warheads -- the level of China's nuclear force.