MUNICH (AP) — NATO leaders on Saturday downplayed Moscow's fears that a new Europe-based missile defense system represents a threat to Russia, while vowing to move ahead with it, even if those concerns cannot be fully addressed.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told The Associated Press that the alliance expects to have first elements of the defense system up and running by its summit in Chicago in May, and that it would continue to work on getting Russia on board with the plan.
"We have not made as much progress as I would like to see, but there is still some time to go before Chicago and I still hope we could reach an agreement," Fogh Rasmussen said. "But irrespective of that, we will continue to develop a NATO missile defense system because we feel a strong responsibility to protect our populations effectively against the missile threat."
The comments came on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, where Russian Sergey Lavrov told delegates the U.S.-led plan "rings alarm bells" and suggested it risks seriously damaging relations with Moscow.
"It should be crystal clear that Russia will not support any scheme that would trigger a new cycle of confrontation," Lavrov said. "Building opposing alliances is a formula from the past, which will result today in sliding toward a global catastrophe."
Lavrov was responding after U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta outlined the plans, which would see a radar system in Turkey, interceptor missiles stationed in Romania and Poland, four ballistic missile defense-capable ships in Rota, Spain, and an operational headquarters in Germany.
"President Obama has made clear that the United States is firmly committed to building a missile defense system in Europe," Panetta said. "The new defense strategy and our budget priorities reflect that commitment."
He said, however, that the system is not "in any way a threat to Russia."
"We made that clear time and time again, will continue to make it clear to Russia, and we hope that ultimately we can resolve those issues."
The U.S. has said the missile shield is aimed at deflecting potential missile threats from Iran — including possible attacks on Russia — but Russia fears it will eventually grow powerful enough to undermine its own nuclear deterrent.
Moscow agreed in 2010 to consider NATO's proposal to cooperate on the U.S.-led missile shield, but the talks have run into a deadlock over how the system should be operated. Russia has insisted that it should be run jointly, which NATO has rejected.
In a televised address to the nation in November, President Dmitry Medvedev threatened to deploy missiles to the Kaliningrad region, bordering Poland and Lithuania, and to other areas of Russia to be aimed at U.S. missile defense sites, if the U.S. and NATO fail to reach a deal allaying Russian worries. He urged the U.S. to provide firm and specific guarantees that its future missile defense potential will not be directed against Russia.
Lavrov reiterated that threat on Saturday, saying that "we are not closing the door, we are not over dramatizing the situation, but if everything goes ahead with missile defense as is planned in Washington and Brussels, then we would have to take measures."
"Those measures would only be engaged if the actual practical developments ... in the missile defense in Europe would develop the proportions that would be a threat to our containment potential."
Fogh Rasmussen accused Moscow, however, of deliberately mischaracterizing the system.
"You can't in any rational way think that NATO constitutes any threat against Russia — it's crazy," he said. "And it's a complete waste of money to deploy offensive weapons and capabilities directed against NATO territory."