The head of NATO says Russia's incursion into Ukraine may affect the prospects for nuclear arms control in Europe, which already faced political challenges.
"Of course I cannot exclude that the events we have witnessed in Crimea will also have an impact on the thinking about arms control, including nuclear policies," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Wednesday remarks at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The alliance leader did not say whether he was referring to potential changes in NATO's or Russia's positions on the potential for pull-backs of tactical nuclear arms in Europe, or both.
Even before the events this month in eastern Ukraine, the increasingly frosty relationship between Moscow and Washington had dampened prospects for a new round of bilateral arms reductions that might include U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons dedicated to NATO defense.
The Kremlin has shown little interest, in particular, in redeploying or eliminating its estimated 2,000 tactical nuclear arms with ranges that can reach European soil. By contrast, the United States fields approximately one-tenth of that size non-strategic atomic arsenal in a handful of allied nations in Europe, instead relying more on NATO's superior conventional capacity for defense.
Russia military occupation of Crimea and subsequent annexation of the territory over the loud protests of Kiev has disturbed NATO to a degree not seen since the Cold War. The events of the past few weeks have triggered a significant rethink of the role of the Western alliance in deterring Russian military activity in Eastern and Central Europe.
The 28-member defense alliance at its last summit in 2012 in Chicago reaffirmed that nuclear arms were a key tool for deterring would-be aggressors. NATO nations also said they would work to "create the conditions" necessary for further cuts to the tactical nuclear arms committed to NATO.
"We shouldn't be naive," Rasmussen said on the subject of European nuclear arms control. "While we will work towards a reduction in the number of nuclear weapons, we also need more transparency and we need to reduce in a balanced manner" with Russia.
On the subject of NATO missile defense, the secretary general said he understands that a U.S. plan to deploy advanced missile interceptors in Romania in 2015 and Poland in 2018 remains on track. A congressional report published last week raised doubts about that timeline.
"According to all information I have got, there won't be any change of the timetable as regards the development of the NATO missile defense system, including the establishment of facilities in Romania and Poland," Rasmussen said. "The timeline is that we intend to provide full coverage by 2018, and so far I haven't seen any indications of changes in that plan."
NATO says the missile shield it is constructing with considerable support from the United States is focused on deterring attacks from the Middle East. Washington has insisted that Moscow is wrong in asserting the system would have any capacity to block its arsenal of strategic missiles.
However, some NATO members such as Poland view the presence of U.S. and allied antimissile systems on their territory as at least symbolically important as a deterrence signal.
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