Russia’s top general warned European countries planning to host installations for a U.S.-led missile-defense shield that Russian forces would be forced to target them.
“Nonnuclear powers where missile-defense installations are being installed have become the objects of priority response,” Gen. Valery Gerasimov said, referring to Poland and Romania.
The comments came at a defense conference in Moscow where a series of high-level Russian leaders repeatedly warned of perceived threats that the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization posed to modern Russia.
Together, the speeches formed a fiery rebuke to the U.S., as the conflict in Ukraine has brought the worst relations between Moscow and Washington since the days of the Cold War.
Western leaders have said NATO’s long-running project to build a missile defense shield in Europe aimed to deter an attack from Iran rather than Russia, a position the alliance reiterated Thursday.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said such assertions were a lie. “Today it is clear that the missile threat from Tehran that the U.S. and other countries of the alliance invented was a bluff,” he said.
Mr. Shoigu also accused NATO of increasing the potential for war in Eastern Europe by practicing “the use of American tactical nuclear weapons deployed in several European countries.”
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson denied that NATO exercises were rehearsing the use of tactical nuclear weapons. “I’m not aware of any of that,” he said in a telephone interview, adding that as chief of U.S. air operations in Europe he would know.
Officials at Poland’s foreign and defense ministries declined to comment, as did Romania’s foreign ministry.
In response to the comments from Russia, NATO denied having ever moved nuclear weapons into Eastern Europe, and accused Russia of starting to “use its nuclear weapons as a tool in its strategy of intimidation.”
“In response to Russia’s actions, we have increased our military presence in the eastern part of our alliance,” NATO said. “This presence is rotational, defensive, proportional and in line with our international commitments.”
Both Gen. Gerasimov and Mr. Shoigu said the location of recent NATO exercises testified to the anti-Russian character of the organization’s aims.
“If in previous years the exercises were focused on crisis management and counterterrorism, today the priority has become solving issues in a military confrontation with a conventional enemy, which is easy to guess: the Russian Federation,” Gen. Gerasimov said.
Gen. Roberson was speaking from Campia Turzii, Romania, where U.S. A-10 ground-attack aircraft are exercising with Romanian MiG-21s.
He said the deployment this year of a dozen A-10s with 300 airmen from their base in Arizona is the first of a regular rotation of U.S. air forces into Europe. A detachment of U.S. F-15C air combat aircraft is scheduled to arrive soon, he said.
These rotations were planned before the crisis last year in Crimea, he said, following the drawdown of about a third of regular U.S. forces in Europe. “I don’t expect the Russians to believe that, but it is true,” he said.
George Scutaru, deputy chairman of Romanian parliament’s defense committee, said that Russia’s “bellicose rhetoric” was part of an information war aimed at new and potential NATO members.
“Russia is bent on stirring fear and doubt about the capacity of the Alliance to defend its members,” Mr. Scutaru said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Shoigu’s reference to U.S. tactical nuclear weapons is related to the stockpiles of Cold War-era warheads in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.
The placement of the weapons have been politically controversial in some countries, and the minister’s remarks appear to be aimed at opening up a wedge between Washington and its allies in Europe.
Gen. Gerasimov warned that NATO was trying to extend its influence in the Balkans, Caucasus and Central Asia, areas with long-standing ties to Moscow.
Mr. Shoigu said the U.S. and other world powers had to take into account the interests of regional powers in negotiations designed to quell violence in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Gen. Gerasimov also warned of Islamist extremism. He said al Qaeda had arisen from the Mujahideen that fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan with U.S. money and support and suggested history had begun to repeat itself.
“Not so long ago participants in [Islamic State] also were ‘good’ fighters, widely paid off by the West as ‘fighters for democracy’ in Syria,” Gen. Gerasimov said. “Now they’ve gotten out of control,” he added, saying they posed a threat to their “former employers.”