The Washington Post

Medvedev threatens to target U.S. missile shield in Europe if no deal is reached

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks at an award ceremony in the Gorki residence outside Moscow, Nov. 22, 2011. (Alexander Nemenov/AP)

President Dmitry Medvedev said Wednesday that Russia will target the American missile defense system in Europe with its missiles if Moscow cannot reach an agreement with Washington and NATO on how the system will be built and operated.

Medvedev, who is leading the ruling United Russia party to the polls in the country’s Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, accused the United States and its NATO allies of failing to negotiate with Russia in good faith, and he said Russia reserved the right to halt its arms-control efforts.

“Unfortunately, the United States and other NATO partners have not demonstrated serious readiness to move,” he said in a televised address.

His declaration comes after a week of bellicose statements by Russian officials about NATO. Much of the rhetoric has focused on the prospect of NATO expansion, which is not under discussion but which is an ever-handy political touchstone for Russian military and nationalist groups.

Medvedev, who is stepping aside so Prime Minister Vladimir Putin can take his place, said there is still time to reach an agreement. Putin has said he will appoint Medvedev prime minister.

“Russia has the political will to achieve the necessary understandings that can open a fundamentally new page in our relations with the United States and the North Atlantic alliance,” Medvedev said.

Medvedev wants Russia to have an equal voice in the design of the missile defense system and ironclad guarantees that the system will not be used against it. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s hard-line ambassador to NATO, said at a later news conference that Medvedev’s announcement does not herald a return to the Cold War.

In the United States, Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the missile defense program is not a threat to Russia’s security and “is focused on addressing the growing missile threat from Iran.”

The United States has been forthcoming with Russia about the program, Kirby said. “We have been addressing Russia’s concerns through an intensive dialogue and detailed briefings at senior levels,” he said. “The U.S. and NATO have welcomed Russia to participate in missile defense cooperation. This is the best way for Russia to receive transparency and assurances that missile defense is not a threat.”

But elections tend to bring out the saber-rattling side of politicians. United Russia’s popularity has been sagging, and there are deep pockets of quiet resentment within the military over far-reaching reforms designed to streamline the armed forces. Medvedev’s turn toward tough talk could help him shore up support as voters head to the polls.

“I must say Medvedev’s statement smells a lot of catering to a domestic audience with the upcoming election,” said Hans Kristensen, a nuclear and arms-control expert at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s counterproductive.”

Medvedev has always portrayed himself as more Western-leaning than Putin. It was just a year ago that he met with the heads of NATO states in Lisbon and said Russia would be interested in joining the missile defense system if accepted as a full partner, something Putin had not endorsed in his two terms as president.

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov anticipated Medvedev’s address. “If we try to single out one problem that is most capable of poisoning the atmosphere of the Euro-Atlantic dialogue, then, certainly, this will be the unilateral plans to deploy parts of the U.S. global missile-
defense system in European states under the NATO aegis,” he said, as reported by the Interfax news agency. “These plans are being implemented with no consideration for Russia’s legitimate concerns, thus undermining the principle of indivisibility of security.”

The U.S. missile defense plan, which dates to the Reagan administration, was revamped two years ago into a proposed system of interceptors based on land and at sea around Europe. The Obama administration says the system is designed to protect against Iranian missiles and wants Russia to become part of it. But defense officials in Moscow — who remember that a missile shield was first proposed with Soviet missiles in mind — says it could easily be turned against Russia.

“Bases in Poland, starting from 2018, to say nothing of American warships deployed in the Northern seas, put the Russian strategic nuclear potential under threat of strike” throughout the European part of the country, Rogozin, the ambassador to NATO, said Wednesday.

Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, voiced American frustration. “In multiple channels, we have explained to Russian officials that the missile defense systems planned for deployment in Europe do not and cannot threaten Russia’s strategic deterrent. Its implementation is going well, and we see no basis for threats to withdraw from it.”

Medvedev said he has ordered the installation of an early-warning radar system in Kaliningrad, Russia’s westernmost enclave. Missiles in what were described as the southern and western parts of Russia are to be equipped with what he called advanced counter-missile systems.

William Wan is the Post's roving national correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He previously served as the paper’s religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent and for three years as the Post’s China correspondent in Beijing.



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