12 May 2016
Kremlin angered as US switches on missile shield in Romania
by Shaun Walker in Moscow
The Guardian


Russia believes shield is intended to weaken its nuclear capabilities, which US officials insist is not the case

US sailors take part in the shield switch-on ceremony at Deveselu airbase, Romania. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA

The US has switched on a missile shield in Romania that it sees as vital to defending itself and Europe from long-range missiles fired by rogue states, prompting anger from the Kremlin which believes the shield’s main goal is to weaken its own strategic nuclear capabilities.

The eventual missile shield will stretch from Greenland to the Azores, and will be ready by the end of 2018. On Friday, the US will break ground on a final site in Poland. The proposal was first agreed by the administration of George W Bush a decade ago and is a longstanding gripe for Moscow, despite repeated assurances from Washington that it is not aimed against Russia.

“From the very beginning of this whole story, we have said that according to our experts’ opinion, we are convinced that the deployment of the missile defence system is truly a threat to Russia’s security,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow. He said Russia was already taking measures to “secure the necessary level of security”.

Control of the missile shield will be handed over to Nato in July, with command and control run from a US airbase in Germany.

On Thursday US officials again insisted Moscow was not the intended target.

Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, and Romania’s prime minister, Dacian Cioloş, at the switching-on ceremony. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA

“As long as Iran continues to develop and deploy ballistic missiles, the United States will work with its allies to defend Nato,” said the US deputy defence secretary, Robert Work, standing in front of the shield’s massive grey concrete housing that was adorned with a US flag.

Despite Washington’s plans to continue to develop the capabilities of its system, Work said the shield would not be used against any future Russian missile threat. “There are no plans at all to do that,” he told a news conference.

However, relations between Russia and the west have deteriorated in the past two years, with the annexation of Crimea and the war in east Ukraine. Europe is more concerned about the security threat from Russia than at any time since the cold war, while Moscow is convinced Nato and the west are attempting to encircle it. Russia is reinforcing its western and southern flanks with three new divisions, while Nato is strengthening its presence in eastern Europe.

Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, the chairman of the State Duma’s defence committee, called the missile defence site a threat to Russia: “They are moving to the firing line. This is not just 100; it’s 200, 300, 1,000% aimed against us.”

Poland is concerned Russia may retaliate further by announcing the deployment of nuclear weapons to its enclave of Kaliningrad, located between Poland and Lithuania. Russia has stationed anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles there, able to cover huge areas and complicate Nato’s ability to move around.

The Kremlin says the shield’s aim is to neutralise Moscow’s nuclear arsenal long enough for the US to strike Russia in the event of war. While US and Nato officials were adamant that the shield was designed to counter threats from the Middle East and not Russia, they remained vague on whether the radars and interceptors could be reconfigured to defend against Russia in a conflict.

“Missile defence ... does not undermine or weaken Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent,” Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said at the base in Deveselu, southern Romania.

At a cost of billions of dollars, the missile defence umbrella relies on radars to detect a ballistic missile launch into space. Sensors then measure the rocket’s trajectory and destroy it in space before it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere. The interceptors can be fired from ships or ground sites.

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