MOSCOW — A senior Russian general threatened on Wednesday pre-emptive attacks on missile-defense sites in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe in the event of a crisis, underscoring the Kremlin’s opposition to the Obama administration’s plans and further undermining relations between the countries.
While Russian officials have said previously that the antimissile sites could become targets in the event of war, the threat of a pre-emptive attack was new.
The remarks from the general, Nikolai Makarov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, coming just days before Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin is set to assume the presidency again, might signal a move to a more muscular foreign policy than that pursued by the departing president, Dmitri A. Medvedev.
They also seem likely to further inflame an already tense relationship. In recent months, the Kremlin has resisted Washington’s entreaties to pressure the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and has given a cold shoulder to the new American ambassador, Michael A. McFaul, with prominent commentators and politicians accusing him of trying to foment revolution in Russia. General Makarov was speaking at a conference in Moscow on antiballistic missile policy, hosted by the Russian Ministry of Defense. In his speech, one of many spelling out opposition to the plan, he went on to specify the type of Russian short-range missiles that might target locations in Eastern Europe.
“Taking into account a missile-defense system’s destabilizing nature, that is, the creation of an illusion that a disarming strike can be launched with impunity, a decision on pre-emptive use of the attack weapons available will be made when the situation worsens,” General Makarov said.
Alexander Vershbow, NATO’s deputy secretary general, played down the general’s speech. He said NATO was trying to resolve what he called “differences in perception regarding the capability of the NATO shield” and hoped to find grounds for cooperation with Moscow.
“I think a lot of the countermeasures described by General Makarov were familiar ones, but I’d have to go back and do research,” he said at a news conference in Moscow. “Clearly it is not something we welcome, by any means. We think the system we are developing poses no threat to Russia, so the whole notion of retaliation or countermeasures has no foundation.”
Mr. Vershbow said NATO interceptors would not be able to be launched quickly enough to intercept a Russian intercontinental ballistic missile as it traveled toward the United States, calling it “a question of science and geography.” He noted that some Russian scientists and policy experts agreed with this assessment.
President George W. Bush proposed the system for Eastern Europe after withdrawing from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty over Russia’s objections. President Obama first stalled the Eastern European program as part of the so-called reset in relations and then revived it in a new format, called the Phased Adaptive Approach.
Russian generals floated a number of objections to the revised plan. General Makarov, in his speech, said the United States was refusing to offer written guarantees that the interceptor missiles directed at Iran would not have the capacity to hit a Russian ICBM in flight as it streaked toward the United States with a nuclear warhead. American officials have said the proposed system will not have that capability.
Still, the Russian generals are not “completely misguided” in their suspicions, said Andrew C. Kuchins, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There is an element in the U.S. elite that does want complete invulnerability,” he said in a telephone interview.
Ellen O. Tauscher, the American special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense, who is attending the conference, told journalists in a briefing on Thursday that the American delegation would hear out the Russian objections but was unlikely to make concessions. In an election year the Obama administration might welcome the general’s remarks, to insulate it from criticisms that it is going soft on Russia.
“The Russian concerns are concerns that we’re willing to listen to. But at the same time they cannot be concerns that we will mitigate by offering any kind of limitations,” Ms. Tauscher said. “There’s nothing I can imagine that will stop us making these deployments on time.”