Russia warns U.S. on missile defense


MOSCOW (AP) — Senior Russian officials on Thursday warned Washington against snubbing Moscow's proposal for cooperating on missiles defense, saying that the deployment of American missile defense sites in Europe would strengthen Russia's belief that it is the real target of the U.S. system.

Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, the chief of general staff of the Russian armed forces, said with Iran posing no immediate missile threat, the aim of the planned U.S. sites in Poland and the Czech Republic must clearly be against Russia's nuclear missiles arsenal.

If the United States rejects Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposal for a shared use of a Russia-rented early warning radar in Azerbaijan, that would clearly show that Washington's real intentions, he said.

"That is a litmus test," Baluyevsky told reporters. "The entire world will see the true aim of this system."

Baluyevsky described the U.S. plans as part of efforts to weaken Russia's nuclear deterrent and referred to what he said were U.S. Cold War-era plans for a disarming nuclear first strike, using missile defenses, that would deprive Russia of the ability to retaliate.

"I don't want to see that even in my worst nightmare," he said at a news conference.

The Russian military, he said, would take "assymetrical steps" to ensure the nation's nuclear deterrent capability, possibly involving new Iskander missiles, but he refused to elaborate.

Putin has threatened to target U.S. allies in Europe with nuclear missiles as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War if Washington proceeds with the deployment of missile defense elements in Europe.

Baluyevsky accused U.S. officials of deliberately misinterpreting Putin's proposal, adding that their statements appeared to signal that Washington plans to reject the Russian initiative.

Putin made the proposal to U.S. President George W. Bush after months of bitter criticism of the U.S. plans. Bush agreed to consider the initiative, but the U.S. administration made it clear it was not abandoning plans for the project in Poland and the Czech Republic — former Soviet satellites that are now NATO members.

The two leaders agreed to discuss the issue further at talks next month at the Bush family vacation home in the U.S. state of Maine.

While U.S. officials cast the Russian proposal as a reflection of the Kremlin's apprehension of an Iranian threat, Baluyevsky denied it, saying that Putin made the move in order to ease tensions and avoid a new arms race, not because of concern over Iran's intentions.

"The Iranian missile threat is hypothetical," he said. "It's not of a catastrophic character and it doesn't require a quick deployment of missile defense sites."

Baluyevsky said that a joint use of the Soviet-built radar in Azerbaijan would help keep track of the Iranian missile program and leave enough time for a response if it evolves into a real threat. He dismissed U.S. claims that the huge Soviet-built radar in Gabala was outdated and unfit for missile defense purposes.

Sergei Kislyak, a deputy foreign minister in charge of arms control, dismissed Iran's claim that it had received indications from Putin that he would not follow through with an offer to allow the U.S. to use the Azerbaijani radar station.

"That is not true and the Iranian colleagues couldn't hear that from any officials here," he told reporters.

Azerbaijan shares borders with both Russia to the north and Iran to the south.

Kislyak warned Washington that by rejecting Putin's initiative it would push the world toward a new arms race. He said that while in reality the U.S. missile defense capability could be far below its declared potential, the Russian military would have to factor it in as a fully viable program in their planning.

"Our military would have to assess it by its maximum capability and will recommend to deploy systems that would ensure a reliable security of Russia," he said. "That would return us to the era we though was left behind — an arms buildup if not a new arms race." Russian-U.S. relations have worsened rapidly amid Moscow's criticism of the U.S. missile defense plans and U.S. concerns about Kremlin democratic backsliding and strong-arming of ex-Soviet neighbors.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday that the current state of the U.S.-Russian relations was "alarming," and warned that Moscow would not accept lecturing from the United States.

"Any format of relations with the United States other than equal partnership will be unacceptable to us," he said.

However, on a conciliatory note, he added that Moscow was ready to improve relations with the United States if Washington shows more respect for its interests.

"We have no anti-American sentiments unlike some other countries," he said. "Nobody objects to the leadership of any country, provided it is prepared for this status and can cope with it. However, everybody should listen to each other, and such a leader must be involved in collective work."