The US ambassador to Nato has threatened to “take out” a Russian nuclear weapons system that posed a threat to Europe and the US.
She later said she was “not talking about” a US strike on Russian territory – a move that could cause war.
But her remarks prompted a Russian outcry on “the danger of aggressive rhetoric”, as well as further Nato and US complaints on Russia’s violation of an arms treaty.
If Russia deployed a new nuclear weapons system, the 9M729, “then, at that point, we’d be looking at the capability to take out a [Russian] missile that could hit any of our countries,” the US ambassador, Kay Bailey Hutchison, told press in Brussels on Tuesday (2 October).
“[US] counter-measures would be to take out the missiles that are in development by Russia … they’re on notice,” Hutchison said.
Her words prompted an immediate outcry by the Russian foreign ministry.
“People making such claims are unaware of the degree of their responsibility and the danger of aggressive rhetoric,” Maria Zakharova, a Russian spokeswoman, told Russian state media.
“Who authorised this lady to … behave so aggressively and destructively?”, Zakharova said.
Hutchison, a former Republican senator from Texas, who has held her Nato post for about a year, later clarified her remarks.
“I was not talking about preemptively striking Russia. My point: ￼Russia needs to return to INF treaty compliance, or we will need to match its capabilities to protect US and Nato interests,” she said on Twitter – some nine hours after her original press briefing.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), signed by Russia and the US in 1987, prohibits land-based cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 km, capable of hitting targets in Europe and Alaska.
US strikes on targets in Russian territory aside, Hutchison might have meant that the US could “take out” the 9M729s after they had been launched via new anti-missile capabilities being built in Nato members Poland and Romania.
The US state department and the Pentagon also issued clarifications.
“What ambassador Hutchison was talking about was improving overall defence and deterrence posture,” Heather Nauert, a state department spokeswoman, said in Washington.
“One of the reasons I’m here this week … is I want advice from Nato nations, what do we do with a treaty that two nations entered into, one is still living by – that’s us, the United States – and Russia isn’t?,” the US defence secretary, James Mattis, said in Paris, prior to a meeting of Nato defence ministers in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday.
“I can’t forecast where it’ll go. It’s a decision for the [US] president,” he told press in France on Tuesday.
“According to the US, Russia has started to deploy that missile [the 9M729]. They’ve shared that intelligence with us,” Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, told media in Brussels also on Tuesday.
“It’s extremely important to make sure that Russia comes into compliance with the INF treaty, because the treaty … is a cornerstone of European security,” he said.
The talk of nuclear violations comes amid heightened tension over Russia’s aggressive use of conventional military forces in Ukraine and in the Baltic region, as well as its use of cyber strikes and propaganda against the US and EU states.
“Every Nato ally is awake today to the reality of Russia’s malicious behaviour,” Mattis said in Paris.
“We see a more assertive Russia … we see the military build-up of Russia, with conventional and nuclear forces,” Stoltenberg said in Brussels.
Wednesday’s Nato talks come after Russia held huge war games involving 300,000 troops and 36,000 vehicles in September in events reminiscent of Cold War-era sabre-rattling.
Nato has deployed Russia-deterrent forces in the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania in reaction to the Russian threat.
It also plans to hold war games in Norway in October and November involving 45,000 troops and 10,000 vehicles.
“The scenario is fictitious but realistic. It will simulate Nato’s collective response to an armed attack against one ally,” Stoltenberg said on Tuesday, alluding to Western fears that Russia might test Nato’s mutual defence pact by an attack on one of the Baltic states.
“The exercise is defensive and it is transparent,” Stoltenberg said, adding that Russia had been “invited to send observers”.
The risk of war between Nato and Russia was highlighted in a recent book, called “Fear”, by US journalist Bob Woodward.
Russian contacts told Mattis, the US defence chief, in summer last year, that if a conventional conflict erupted in Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, then it would strike targets in Europe using “tactical” nuclear weapons, Woodward said, citing Pentagon sources.
Tactical nuclear weapons are smaller in explosive power than “strategic” ones.
They are meant to be used against enemy forces on the battlefield, instead of causing mass-scale damage in the heart of enemy territory.
For his part, Pavel Podvig, a UN nuclear arms expert in Geneva, told EU observer in a previous interview that Russia would be unlikely to fire tactical weapons at targets in Europe even if it faced defeat in a conflict outside its own borders due to Nato’s conventional superiority.
“[Russian] military doctrine says Russia would only use nuclear weapons if the Russian state is facing an existential threat”, Podvig said.
“For instance, if Russian forces are at risk of being defeated, then you could use a nuclear weapon against some isolated island at sea. The thinking is that if you use a nuclear weapon, even if you don’t hit enemy forces, you stop them by showing your will to use any means necessary to halt the aggression”, he said.