A senior Russian official today accused the US of grossly exaggerating the missile threat posed by hostile powers such as Iran, predicting there would be no menace from the Middle East "for at least a decade to come".
Alexander Sternik, a senior diplomat at Russia ‘s London embassy, made his comments in the course of a blistering attack on America’s plans to site missile interceptors in Poland and a large radar in the Czech Republic.
"For the first time it will add a strategic component for US forward forces close to Russia’s borders," he told a conference organised by the Royal United Services Institute, a defence thinktank. If the US took up Moscow’s offer to use a radar base in Azerbaijan instead, there would be a "tectonic shift" in their relations, he added.
His remarks come at a time when the Obama administration is conducting a review of America’s policy on missile defence. Lt Gen Patrick O’Reilly, director of the US missile defence agency, had been due to speak at today’s conference but cancelled at the last moment because he was summoned to what were described as "high-level consultations".
Nancy Morgan, the agency’s director of international affairs, spoke on his behalf. Neither she nor a senior Pentagon official who also addressed the conference in a prepared speech were willing to answer questions.
Their refusal to do so reflects the sensitivity of the matter at a crucial time in US attempts to improve relations with Moscow, including through new strategic arms talks.
Morgan said the review was designed to make missile defence "more affordable and effective". US officials have made it clear that the priority would be developing discrete regional missile defence systems such as a sea-based one designed to protect Japan from North Korea, and others to protect US troops deployed abroad.
Plans to base 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a powerful radar in the Czech Republic are particularly controversial because there is no international consensus about when Iran – whose missiles the Polish and Czech bases are aimed at – could be a potential threat.
John Plumb, a senior Pentagon official, told the conference that "no final decisions have been made" on the Polish and Czech sites.