(CNSNews.com) – As Russia prepares to host America and the world at the winter Olympics in Sochi, its relations with the United States are facing new strains over old disputes, focusing on key arms reduction treaties.
The trigger for the latest flare-up is the unfolding NATO missile defense shield in Europe, and specifically the departure from the U.S. on Friday of the first of four destroyers that will form part of the sea- and land-based system, designed to protect U.S. forces and European allies by intercepting and destroying incoming ballistic missiles.
From their new home port near Gibraltar in southwestern Spain, the USS Donald Cook and three other Arleigh-Burke class destroyers with ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities will patrol the Mediterranean region. Together with interceptor facilities to be built in Romania and Poland, and radar in Turkey, their aim will be to respond to any medium-range ballistic missile threat from the Middle East, primarily from Iran.
By 2018 the aim is for the shield, known formally as the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), to provide a protective umbrella over the whole of Europe.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in Germany on Saturday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted the destroyer’s departure and underlined the “unwavering” U.S. commitment to Europe and the EPAA.
Russia remains bitterly opposed to the shield, contending despite the Pentagon’s repeated assurances over several years that it will weaken its nuclear deterrent.
Also taking part in the Munich conference were NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The NATO chief chided Russia for “falsely” describing the missile defense shield as offensive, but Lavrov responded that his country views the system as “a part of the strategic arsenal of the United States.”
“When a nuclear shield is added to a nuclear sword, it is very tempting to use this offensive-defensive capability,” he said.
Responding to Hagel’s remarks about the EPAA, the Russian foreign ministry’s top disarmament official, Mikhail Ulyanov, warned – not for the first time – that the 2010 New START arms-reduction treaty could be in jeopardy.
That treaty – a major foreign policy priority for President Obama that was ratified by a lame-duck Senate after all-out administration lobbying – saw the U.S. and Russia agree to reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550 by 2018, down from the previous ceiling of 2,200.
At the time of signing in April 2010, Moscow issued a unilateral statement reserving the right to withdraw from the treaty if Russia felt its interests and the potential of its strategic nuclear forces were being threatened by U.S. missile defense systems.
Ulyanov told Interfax Russia would take that step if it felt it had no other option.
“We are concerned that the U.S. is continuing to build up missile defense capability without considering the interests and concerns of Russia,” he said. “Such a policy can undermine strategic stability and lead to a situation where Russia will be forced to exercise right of withdrawal from the [New START] treaty.”
Meanwhile another area of dispute between Washington and Moscow arose at the Munich conference, when Lavrov was asked about a report last week saying the U.S. was investigating whether Russia’s testing of a new ground-launched cruise missile violated a Cold War-era nuclear arms-control treaty.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed Thursday that U.S. officials had discussed with NATO counterparts concerns that Russia may have contravened the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. An “intensive interagency review process” was underway, she said.
Asked in Munich about the report, Lavrov said he did not comment on “leakages” to the media, believing it was not helpful to bring such issues into the public domain.
But he noted that a mechanism does exist between Russia and the U.S. where “questions” and “doubts” could be raised, adding that Russia has used it “repeatedly” to raise concerns about U.S. missile defense deployments.
“We still expect explanations – and they could raise whatever doubts they have about us,” he said.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) in a statement said the alleged Russian violation of the INF Treaty “would put our allies at risk and be a major step backward in our post-Cold War relations.”
“Over the past year I have met with intelligence and policy officials to assess the intelligence surrounding the apparent Russian violation, and to urge the administration to strongly confront the Russians and to keep our allies informed,” he said. “Russia has been pursuing a troubling and aggressive ramp up of military and intelligence capabilities in recent years.”
Signed by President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the INF Treaty prohibited the possession of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles boasting ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The two countries duly destroyed all intermediate-range missiles by the 1991 deadline.
Since the end of the Cold War several countries not bound by the INF Treaty have been developing missiles either in the intermediate range or fast approaching it. They include China, Pakistan, India, North Korea and Iran. As a result some arms-control experts have argued that the U.S. either work to expand the treaty, or abrogate it.