Russian Ups Ante In Missile Spat

000607 missile defense
AP / CBS
Firing from the sea, air and land, Russia on Friday launched an array of missile tests that underline the strength of its rocket forces amid increased tension with the United States over missile defense.

The tests came as a top Defense Ministry official accused U.S. President George W. Bush's administration of engaging in "anti-Russian" rhetoric and basing its proposal for a national missile defense system on "pure fantasy."

President Bush has made a missile defense plan a cornerstone of his foreign policy, and has suggested the U.S. might unilaterally reduce its nuclear attack arsenal if such a system could be brought on-line.

Mr. Bush insists a missile defense plan would be used to protect the U.S. against attacks from so-called "Rogue States," and not against the world's big powers; but that has been cold comfort for Russia and China, who fear such a system could provoke a new arms race.

The launches also came just days before a planned visit by the head of NATO, whose eastward expansion worries the Kremlin.

The Russian armed forces launched a Topol intercontinental ballistic missile from the Plesetsk base in northwestern Russia and a ballistic missile of unspecified type from a submarine in the Barents Sea off Russia's north coast. Both hit their targets in a test range on the Kamchatka Peninsula some 4,200 miles away in Russia's far eastern extremities, officials said.

Later Friday, news reports said air force bombers test-fired one strategic and two tactical missiles in southern Russia. Strategic missiles are generally capable of carrying nuclear warheads and tactical missiles often can bear them.

The Topol, which has been in service since the mid-1980s, and an advanced version called the Topol-M, are expected to be the backbone of Russia's missile forces in the coming years. Many of Russia's other missiles are either past their service dates or will have to be dismantled under the START II treaty, which both Russia and the United States have ratified but which has not gone into effect.

The Topol class missile currently carries just a single warhead, but Strategic Missile Force commander Gen. Vladimir Yakovlev has said they could be fitted with multiple warheads if the United States goes ahead with a proposal to create a national missile defense system.

The Topol, which weighs about 45 tons, is a relatively small missile that can be fired from mobile launch vehicles, making it difficult for foes to locate or track. Officials were clearly pleased that Friday's launch showed the formidable weapon still in working order.

The launch "has opened up for the missile forces further opportunities for using this class of missile as part of the arsenal for the next five to 10 years," a spokesman for the Strategic Missile Forces, Ilshat Bamchurin, was quoted as saying by the news agency Interfax.

Fitting the Topol with multiple warheads would increase its effectiveness against the proposed U.S. ntional missile defense system. The U.S. administration says such a system is necessary to protect the country against potential attacks by small countries believed to be developing nuclear missiles.

Russia vehemently opposes the plan, which would require amending the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that the Kremlin says is a keystone of world strategic stability. The treaty bans national missile defense systems under the belief that a country would not launch a nuclear strike if it were unable to protect itself against retaliation.

On Friday. Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, head of the Defense Ministry's international cooperation department, denounced the U.S. proposal and said enacting it would touch off a new arms race.

"Talk of the necessity to develop a national missile defense system to counter threats of strikes of intercontinental ballistic missiles from North Korea, Iran and Iraq on the territory of the United States is pure fantasy," he said.

Ivashov also said Russia will present specific proposals for an alternative to the U.S. system when NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson visits Russia next week.

The visit is part of a NATO effort to promote better relations with Russia, which have been damaged by the alliance's bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and by its eastward expansion.

Russia is especially distressed about the possibility of the former Soviet Baltic republics becoming NATO members, which would leave Russia's militarily vital enclave of Kaliningrad surrounded by the alliance and bring NATO to within about 100 miles of St. Petersburg.

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