Russian tactical nuclear missiles a US concern: WSJ

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Russia moved tactical nuclear warheads to within miles of its border with NATO countries as recently as late spring, complicating US ties with Moscow as Congress mulls a new arms control treaty, a report said Tuesday.

The Wall Street Journal cited US officials who described the movements and cautioned that they ran afoul of pledges Moscow made as early as 1991 to remove the weapons from outposts near Eastern European NATO allies such as Poland.

The Russian deployments of the weapons -- which unnamed officials said has been expanded several times in recent years -- was being seen as an apparent hedge against the system of US-NATO missile defense installations in countries that border Russia.

Former US president George W. Bush agreed on a plan for a US anti-nuclear missile shield in Europe, in part to ward off any missile threat from Iran, that envisaged installation of interceptors and long-range missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic.

But after Russia objected that its security was threatened, President Barack Obama modified the plans last year to and opted for medium- and short-range missile interceptors in Poland.

Suspicions in the region have remained high, however.

Foreign governments have raised their concerns with Washington over the deployments, with some officials stressing that the movements could pose a graver danger than larger, strategic nuclear weapons that come under the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, the Journal reported.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis raised his concerns directly with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the paper said.

"Being a NATO member, of course, someone could say, 'Don't worry.' But when you're living in the neighborhood, you should always be more cautious," the Journal quoted Azubalis as saying.

He added that US officials "expressed worry but they also don't know too much" about the location of the tactical weapons or how they are kept.

US officials said they believe the most recent Russian deployment occurred in late spring, around the time a US Patriot missile battery was installed in Poland, according to the report.

US intelligence on the developments has been shared with congressional committees, the Journal said.

Republican Senator Jim Risch during a September hearing described the intelligence as "troubling," adding that it "directly affects" the arms control debate.

One unnamed US official told the Journal that US and Russian negotiators sought to address tactical weapons, but only after the new treaty goes into effect.

"If we don't ratify START, we're not going to be able to negotiate on tactical nuclear weapons," the official said.

US Republicans, emboldened by their recent victory in legislative elections, have voiced opposition to Senate ratification of New START.

Republicans led by their number-two, Senator Jon Kyl, have signaled they will block a vote on the landmark treaty this year, handing Obama a defeat on a top foreign policy priority.

A Kyl aide circulated the Journal article by email on Tuesday, presumably as fodder against New START.

© 2010 AFP

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