Russian foreign minister says U.S. hopes to win nuclear superiority over Russia

Russia's foreign minister said that Moscow perceives the planned establishment of U.S. missile defense sites in Europe as a signal that the United States wants to gain a nuclear superiority over Russia and said that the two nations need to negotiate new arms control agreements to strengthen mutual trust.

Sergey Lavrov, speaking in an interview published Wednesday in the daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, dismissed Washington's claim that its plan to deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic was directed to counter a missile threat from Iran.

"If they talk about potential threats coming from Iran or North Korea, missile defense elements should be located in a different place," Lavrov said. "We can't help noting that these facilities would be capable of intercepting missiles launched from Russia."

Lavrov said that while "there is no talk about us launching the missiles," the deployment of U.S. missile defenses in Europe could encourage the United States to think in terms of getting a nuclear superiority over Russia.

He said the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty which Washington quit in order to develop missile defenses banned missile defense systems on the assumption that the fear of retaliation would prevent each nation from launching a first strike.

"Since protection from the first strike would be guaranteed, as American strategists apparently expect, another temptation arises to be the first to launch a strike, aware that a chance has emerged to go unpunished," Lavrov said.

The statement was one of the strongest signals yet of a growing distrust between Moscow and Washington, fueled by differences over NATO's eastward expansion, different approach to global crises and U.S. concerns about Russia's democracy record.

At a security conference in Munich earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin criticized U.S. foreign policy in angry comments that shocked Western governments. He accused Washington of uncontained use of force worldwide and of triggering a global arms race.

Lavrov followed up on Putin's warning that Russia would take countermeasures in response to the U.S. missile sites deployment in Europe.

"We will respond, of course, but without any hysteria. We can't afford being entangled in an arms race once again," he said.

He said that Russia and the United States must negotiate new arms control agreements to improve mutual trust, particularly as a landmark Soviet-era nuclear arms reduction treaty expires in 2009.

START I, signed in 1991 by the United States and the Soviet Union, limits the number of various types of vehicles and warheads that can be deployed by either side, and contains measures both sides can take to inspect and verify reductions.

The 2002 Treaty of Moscow, signed by Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush and obliges Russia and the U.S. to cut their strategic nuclear arsenals by about two-thirds to 1,700-2,200 warheads by 2012, is closely based on the verification procedures set out in START I, which expires in December 2009, reports AP.

Russian officials have called for negotiations on a replacement for START, indicating that Moscow wants to freshen up the rules and avoid uncertainty after the expiration.

Lavrov said in the interview that Russia and the United States need to conduct an arms control dialogue "on the basis of mutual trust and the balance of power and interests."

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