BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday refused to rule out that the military alliance might adapt its nascent missile defense shield to counter the potential threat posed by a new Russian missile system.
In February, the U.S. began the six-month process of withdrawing from the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty agreed with the then Soviet Union, insisting that Russia's SSC-8 missiles contravenes the pact.
The INF treaty, considered to be a cornerstone of European nuclear security, will end on Aug. 2 unless Russia changes its mind, and NATO defense ministers were due to weigh what steps to take in response. The treaty bans production, testing and deployment of land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers (310-3,400 miles).
Asked whether NATO might use the multi-billion dollar shield against Russia's new missiles, Stoltenberg said he wouldn't divulge "exactly what we will do because we are still focused on how we can get Russia back into compliance."
He has said only that "we do not intend to deploy new land based nuclear missiles in Europe."
NATO allies decided in 2010 to develop a ballistic missile defense system to protect Europeans from attack from outside Europe and North America. At the time, it was meant to counter any threat from North Korea or Iran. Despite Moscow's vehement objections to the system, the alliance always insisted that it could never be turned against Russia.
During their talk, the defense ministers were set to thrash out what political and military options might be most appropriate should the INF collapse, but no sign emerged beforehand that major allies agree on the best way ahead.
The Pentagon has shared information with NATO allies asserting that Russia's ground-fired cruise missile could give Moscow the ability to launch a nuclear strike in Europe with little or no notice. Moscow insists the missile has a range of less than 500 kilometers and counters that the U.S., itself, has been breaching the INF treaty.
"These missiles are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. They can reach European cities within minutes. They are hard to detect," Stoltenberg told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
"Russia still has an opportunity to save the INF treaty," he said, and warned that, if not, "we need to respond."
NATO is keen for Moscow’s envoy to take part in talks on the standoff late next week but it was still awaiting confirmation that Russia would take part.