After Russia Threatens Pre-emptive Strike on NATO Missiles, U.S. Stresses ‘Cooperation,’ ‘Common Ground’

By Patrick Goodenough | May 4, 2012 | 4:52am EDT

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- soon to return to the presidency -- and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov examine military equipment and weapons during a visit to a Motorized Infantry Brigade base in Moscow on Feb. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Government Press Service)

( – Hours after Russia’s top general threatened pre-emptive strikes on proposed NATO missile defense facilities in Europe, the State Department said Thursday the U.S. would “redouble our efforts to seek common ground” with Moscow over the deepening dispute.

At an international conference in Moscow focusing on missile defense, attended by senior U.S. officials, Russian Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov said that “a decision to use destructive force pre-emptively will be taken if the situation worsens.”

In response to questions about Makarov’s threat, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, “I think we’re just going to redouble our efforts to seek common ground on this and to seek understanding.”

“This cooperation on missile defense has been something that we’ve been engaged on and committed to for a number of years, so we’re going to continue those efforts.”

Asked whether the U.S. was concerned or alarmed, Toner replied, “I’m aware of this kind of rhetoric being thrown around.”

“I would also just point you to the fact that [outgoing] President [Dmitry] Medvedev also addressed the meeting that was taking place in Russia, in Moscow, and he expressed confidence that despite differences, we’re going to be able to resolve those differences on missile defense.”

Asked when that resolution was likely, Toner replied, “I don’t have a date certain on that. I think we’re just going to continue the hard work on it.”

Russian leaders have warned periodically since 2008 that they may deploy Iskander short-range missiles in Kaliningrad – an exclave of Russian territory bordering Poland – in response to the proposed missile defense shield, but the threat of preemptive strikes raises the stakes just days before Vladimir Putin returns to the helm at the Kremlin for a third presidential term.

“The placement of new strike weapons in the south and northwest of Russia against [NATO] missile defense components, including the deployment of Iskander missile systems in Kaliningrad region, is one possible way of incapacitating the European missile defense infrastructure,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Makarov as saying.

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev talk missile defense and elections in Seoul, South Korea on March, 26, 2012 (AP Photo/ Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The dispute has dragged on for a decade, with little sign of a breakthrough – despite President Obama’s 2009 reworking of his predecessor’s original plans and repackaging the effort as a NATO project, as part of his bid to “reset” strained relations with Russia.

Russia was invited to participate in the system, and at a Nov. 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon it tentatively agreed. Differences soon arose, however, with Russia demanding binding non-aggression guarantees in a form of a treaty or similar.

In Seoul last March, Obama prompted speculation that he would be prepared to compromise further should he win a second term, when in an unguarded moment he was heard telling Medvedev that Putin needs to give him “space” on the missile defense issue.

“This is my last election,” Obama told Medvedev. “After my election I have more flexibility.”

“I understand,” the Russian replied. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

‘No stalemate’

The U.S. says the shield is needed to protect America and its European allies against a potential future missile attack from Iran or other hostile states; Moscow says it will weaken Russia’s nuclear deterrent and harm its security, despite the Pentagon’s repeated assurances that the proposal is designed to counter rogue missiles, not the Russian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) arsenal.

Timed to precede the NATO summit in Chicago later this month, the conference in Moscow is being hosted by the Defense Ministry and attended by representatives from NATO member states, as well as China, Japan, South Korea and some former Soviet states.

Opening the event Thursday, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov no mutually-acceptable solution to the issue has yet been found, and warned that the situation was approaching “a dead end.”

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev predicted that the proposed NATO system would by 2020 – the projected date for the shield to come into full operation – have the ability to intercept Russia’s ICBMs.

“The refusal to discuss the conditions for providing legal binding guarantees for the deployment system to be not aimed at Russia strengthens our convictions that the real goal of this missile defense system could differ from what is stated,” he said.

During a conference call briefing at the end of the first day’s proceedings, U.S. special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense Ellen Tauscher said the U.S. has long indicated that it could provide “a political statement that our missile defenses are not directed at Russia.”

What it would not agree to, she said, was “anything legally binding that would include limitations on the system and our ability to protect ourselves, forward-deployed American troops, and NATO allies.”

“We have been transparent with Russia about the timing, deployment, and scope of U.S. missile defense deployments.”

Tauscher said that the situation had not reached a stalemate, noting that Obama and Medvedev, at their meeting in Seoul, had agreed that technical experts and officials should continue talking about the opportunity for missile defense cooperation.

Although some of the outstanding issues were technical, she said, others were political.

“And because 2012 is an election year in both countries, it is clearly not a year in which we are going to achieve a breakthrough.”

Another U.S. delegate taking part in the briefing, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs Madelyn Creedon, stressed that the U.S. remains committed to implementing all four phases of the planned missile defense system.

Stage one of the “Phased Adaptive Approach,” announced in September 2009 after a lengthy administration review of the earlier Bush proposals, began with the deployment last year of Aegis ballistic missile defense-capable ships in the Mediterranean. A missile defense radar is also being deployed in Turkey.

Phase two is the stationing of an interceptor site in Romania in 2015 to provide protection against medium-range ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East, while phase three envisages a similar facility established in Poland in 2018.

Phase four will involve a more advanced interceptor, to be deployed in 2020, to provide enhanced protection against medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles as well as potential future ICBM threats from the Middle East.

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