MOSCOW – Poland and the Czech Republic risk being targeted by Russian missiles if they agree to host elements of the proposed U.S. missile defense system, a top Russian general warned Monday in the latest in a series of increasingly bellicose statements from Moscow.
President Vladimir Putin has said he does not trust U.S. claims that it wants to deploy missile defense components in Europe to counter threats from Iran, and warned that Russia could take retaliatory action.
Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, head of Russia's missile forces, said the U.S. move would upset strategic stability.
"If the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic take such a step ... the Strategic Missile Forces will be capable of targeting these facilities if a relevant decision is made," he said.
The United States said last month that it wants to build a missile defense system in eastern Europe to protect the eastern United States and Europe from missiles launched from "rogue nations" in the Middle East. It would be the first such site in Europe.
The Czech government reiterated Monday that the U.S. defense system was not aimed at Russia.
"It is a passive defense against a different threat about which Russia has been informed in detail," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement from Prague. "It is nonsense from a military point of view that Russia could pull out of the treaty banning medium-range missiles and build additional military capabilities as a response to the U.S. missile defense."
But Solovtsov voiced concerns that Washington, which is planning to deploy 10 interceptors in Poland, could boost their number in the future. He warned that a hypothetical military action could have "grave consequences for all parties involved."
He also said that it would take only five or six years, or even less, to build new, upgraded versions of missiles scrapped under the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty -- the 1987 agreement signed by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan banning medium-range missiles.
"It is not difficult to restore their production," Solovtsov told a news conference. "The missiles were dismantled, but the production technology has remained."
At a security conference in Munich earlier this month, Putin said the INF treaty was outdated, and that many nations had since developed medium-range missiles eliminated by Russia and the United States. The chief of the military's General Staff later warned that Moscow's decision to pull out of the treaty would depend on whether the United States deploys the missile defense components in Europe.
Solovtsov said Russia would not simply copy the Soviet medium-range SS-20 missiles scrapped under the INF treaty but would develop a new missile with improved performance.
He also said Russia would continue gradually replacing Soviet-built intercontinental ballistic missiles with new Topol-M missiles, and would fully rearm around 2016 while maintaining levels under a 2002 arms control treaty signed by Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush. That treaty obliging both sides to cut their strategic nuclear weapons by about two-thirds by 2012, down between 1,700 to 2,200 missiles.
Putin also warned in Munich that Russia could respond to the deployment of U.S. missile defense in Europe by building new, more efficient weapons. He had previously boasted that Russia was developing new missiles that would be impossible for an enemy to intercept.
"It's possible to deploy such weapons shortly if the situation requires that," Solovtsov said, though he refused to elaborate.
He also said the military was considering plans for fitting multiple nuclear warheads to its new Topol-M missiles.
Military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said that Russia was likely to fit multiple warheads to its new missiles after the expiration of the 1991 START I arms reduction treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union which barred Russia from such a move.
"Russia doesn't need it now, since the military still has a lot of Soviet-built missiles," he said.