Russia on Wednesday threatened to deploy missiles on the EU's borders to strike against a planned US defence system in eastern Europe, but Washington said the shield will go ahead as planned.
Using rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War, President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia was prepared to deploy Iskander missiles, which officials said have a range of up to 500 kilometres (310 miles), in the Kaliningrad exclave that borders EU members Poland and Lithuania.
He said the weapons systems might also be deployed in the south -- close to Russia's foe Georgia and NATO member Turkey -- and be used to eliminate the missile defence systems.
In Washington, a spokesman for the National Security Council said that "we will not in any way limit or change our deployment plans for Europe" despite continuing "to work with Russia to define the parameters of possible cooperation."
"The United States has been open and transparent with Russia on our plans for missile defense in Europe, which reflect a growing threat to our allies from Iran that we are committed to deterring," Tommy Vietor said.
"In multiple channels, we have explained to Russian officials that the missile defense systems planned for deployment in Europe do not and cannot threaten Russia's strategic deterrent."
Romania and Poland have agreed to host part of a revamped US missile shield which Washington said is aimed solely at "rogue" states like Iran but Moscow believes would also target its own capability.
NATO member Turkey has decided to host an early warning radar at a military facility near Malatya in the southeast as part of the missile defence system.
Medvedev warned that if the West pressed ahead with the plans, "the Russian Federation will deploy in the west and the south of the country modern weapons systems that could be used to destroy the European component of the US missile defence."
"One of these steps could be the deployment of the Iskander missile systems in Kaliningrad," Medvedev said in a televised address.
Medvedev ordered the Russian defence ministry to "immediately" put radar systems in Kaliningrad that warn of incoming missile attacks on a state of combat readiness.
He said that Russia's ballistic missiles would be given the capacity to overcome missile defence systems as well as "new highly effective warheads."
In Brussels, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was "very disappointed" at Russia's warning.
"Such deployments would be reminiscent of the past and are inconsistent with the strategic relations NATO and Russia have agreed they seek and with the spirit of the dialogue, including on missile defence issues, that they are currently conducting," he said.
The dispute on missile defence has repeatedly been an obstacle to a "reset" in relations between Russia and the United States and Medvedev said it could impact disarmament cooperation with its ex-Cold War foe.
"If the situation does not develop well, then Russia reserves the right to halt further steps in disarmament and the corresponding weapons controls," he said, speaking from his residence in front of the Russian flag.
He also said the problem could lead to Russia quitting the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) for nuclear arms cuts with the United States that Medvedev signed with President Barack Obama in April 2010.
"There could be a basis for our exit from START. This is allowed under the sense of the treaty itself," added Medvedev.
Medvedev's hawkish comments came after he met Obama for talks on the sidelines of a summit in Hawaii earlier this month.
They also coincide with the run-up to legislative elections on December 4, where Medvedev is leading the list of the ruling United Russia party.
Liberal opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, whose party is not registered to take part in the elections, told the Interfax news agency that Medvedev had performed the classic pre-poll trick of finding an external enemy.
"They just forgot that the arms race led to the collapse of the Soviet Union," he said.
The missile warning has come just as current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- whom analysts see taking a tougher line on foreign and military policy than Medvedev -- prepares to return to the presidency in 2012 polls.
Medvedev took over from his mentor Putin as president in 2008 and along with Obama moved to warm US-Russia relations that had gone into a deep chill during the presidencies of Putin and George W. Bush.
by Stuart Williams
(c) 2011 AFP