MOSCOW -- A senior Russian general has threatened pre-emptive attacks on missile defense sites in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe in the event of a crisis, underscoring the Kremlin's opposition to the Obama administration's plans and further undermining relations between the countries.
While Russian officials have said previously that the anti-missile sites could become targets in the event of war, the threat of a pre-emptive attack was new.
The remarks Wednesday from the general, Nikolai Makarov, chief of the general staff --coming just days before Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is set to assume the presidency for the second time -- might signal a shift to a more muscular foreign policy than that pursued by the outgoing president, Dmitry Medvedev. Paradoxically, some experts said, the general's hawkishness might be welcome in the White House, which in an election year is concerned with warding off Republican accusations that it is going soft on Russia.
Speculation aside, the remarks seem likely to further inflame an already tense relationship. In recent months, the Kremlin has resisted Washington's entreaties to pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad's government about the regime's response to a popular uprising there and has given a cold shoulder to new U.S. Ambassador Michael A. McFaul, with prominent commentators and politicians accusing him of trying to foment revolution in Russia.
Gen. Makarov was speaking at a conference in Moscow on anti-ballistic missile policy, hosted by the Russian Ministry of Defense. In his speech, one of many spelling out opposition to the plan, he went on to specify the type of Russian short-range missiles that might target locations in Eastern Europe.
"Taking into account a missile defense system's destabilizing nature -- that is, the creation of an illusion that a disarming strike can be launched with impunity -- a decision on pre-emptive employment of the attack weapons available could be made when the situation worsens," Gen. Makarov said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Alexander Vershbow, NATO's deputy secretary-general, played down the general's speech. He said NATO was trying to resolve what he called "differences in perception regarding the capability of the NATO shield" and hopes to find grounds for cooperation with Moscow.
"I think a lot of the countermeasures described by Gen. Makarov were familiar ones, but I'd have to go back and do research," he said at a news conference in Moscow. "Clearly, it is not something we welcome, by any means. We think the system we are developing poses no threat to Russia, so the whole notion of retaliation or countermeasures has no foundation."
Mr. Vershbow said NATO interceptors would not be able to launch quickly enough to intercept a Russian intercontinental ballistic missile as it traveled toward the United States, calling it "a question of science and geography." He noted that some Russian scientists and policy experts agree with this assessment.
Former President George W. Bush proposed the system for Eastern Europe after withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty over Russia's objections. President Barack Obama first stalled the Eastern European program as part of the reset and then revived it in a new format, called the Phased Adaptive approach. Russian generals floated a number of objections to the revised plan.
Gen. Makarov, in his speech, said the United States was refusing to offer written guarantees that the interceptor missiles directed at Iran will not have the capacity to hit a Russian ICBM in flight as it streaks toward the United States with a nuclear bomb. U.S. officials have said the proposed system will not have that capability.
Ellen Tauscher, the U.S. special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense, who is attending the conference, told journalists in a briefing Wednesday that the U.S. delegation would hear out the Russian objections, but was unlikely to make concessions.
"The Russian concerns are concerns that we're willing to listen to. But at the same time, they cannot be concerns that we will mitigate by offering any kind of limitations," Ms. Tauscher said. "There's nothing I can imagine that will stop us making these deployments."