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.
Robert L. Pfaltzgraff Jr., a professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, noted that while ICBMs fly faster than shorter-range missiles and the technology to intercept them is different, the Kremlin sees these deployments as providing a basis for a better system later.
"The Russian concern is that these systems could be upgraded in the future," he said.
But Mr. Pfaltzgraff said the fact that Moscow is thinking in these terms proves Russia is not a U.S. ally and has "divergent interests from us and to pretend otherwise to try and placate them is a fool's errand.
"Russia wants a deterrent relationship with the United States," he said. "Why? Is Canada worried that they don't have an effective deterrent against our nuclear weapons?"
In Moscow, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov indicated that the "red line" for Russia would be the deployment of ground-based interceptor missiles, estimated to happen in 2018 at the earliest.
"Red lines are a dangerous game," said Mr. Ludes. "This has been simmering for years."
"The Russians have opposed U.S. plans, whether offered by the Bush administration or the Obama administration. But the fact that they would make this kind of public threat gives us an idea of just how strongly they feel about it," Mr. Ludes said.
Gen. Makarov said the Russians have set "only one condition [to agree to NATO deployment of the system]: the zone of possible interception for current and future missile-defense weapon systems should not cross the border of Russia."
U.S. officials have rejected any deal that would put limits on the capabilities of the system, or on how many would be deployed.
"We've made very clear that we will not accept any limitations on either the number or the capabilities of these [missile-defense] systems," said Madelyn Creedon, the Pentagon's assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs.
Ms. Tauscher also said the U.S. and its allies are not interested in a treaty or similar arrangement that would limit the use of the system and that they will push ahead with testing and deployment.
"We cannot and will not make any legally binding agreement that includes limitations on our ability to protect ourselves," she said, before Gen. Makarov spoke. "There is nothing I can imagine that will stop us from making those deployments on time."
Responding to the general's comments, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States has "made clear for many years now that there's no intent, desire or capability [for missile defense] to undermine Russia's strategic deterrent."
Asked whether he was "alarmed" by the general's threat, Mr. Toner replied: "I think we're just going to redouble our efforts to seek common ground on this and to seek understanding."
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, traveling in Lithuania, accused the Russians of using missile defense as an "excuse to have a military buildup in this part of the world, which is at peace."
The Arizona Republican, who once referred to the look in longtime Russian strongman Vladimir Putin's eyes as spelling out "K-G-B," called Kremlin saber-rattling"an egregious example of what might be even viewed as paranoia on the part of Vladimir Putin."
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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