US Deputy Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller said in an interview to BNS in Vilnius that Moscow's threats are ungrounded, as NATO's missile defense system could not undermine Russia's strategic nuclear weaponry as a deterrent.
"We really do not see that there is a threat to the Russian Federation. We've been very clear that this missile defense system (...) is a very limited type of system that is focused on threats from the Middle East, possibly from North Korea," Gottemoeller said.
"It does not have any capability to undermine the Russian strategic nuclear deterrent. So, if there is no threat to Russia, then we believe that there should be no threat that would require them to respond in a way they are talking about," said the diplomat in charge of arms control and monitoring.
Russia recently announced its plans to deploy ballistic missiles Iskander in Lithuania's neighboring Kaliningrad region. Lithuania's leaders have repeatedly expressed fears over the plans, emphasizing that Moscow had been enhancing and modernizing its armed forces in the Western direction for some time.
Asked whether the US and NATO were considering a response to Russia's potential plans of new defense in Kaliningrad, Gottemoeller said the regional situation was considered in the process of NATO defense planning.
"NATO alliance is always working on contingency planning. It's an important goal, it's been an important goal for the Baltic states overall. Everything that happens in this region and beyond is taken into account in NATO planning," said deputy to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Serious discussions” on tactical weaponry
Lithuania's officials suspect that Russia has tactical nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad. The weapons, which are primarily intended for a battlefield, are not regulated in any treaties.
After signing the START treaty with Russia on restriction of strategic nuclear weapons a year ago, the United States pledged to initiate negotiations on more mobile tactical nuclear weapons as well. However, Moscow has not been enthusiastic at all.
"We've been seeking to initiate such negotiations, we have some serious discussions going with the Russians on this matter. We haven't yet started formal negotiations but I must say that we still have some homework to do in this regard," said Gottemoeller, US chief negotiator on the START treaty.
She noted that NATO still had discussions on the so-called deterrence and defense posture review, which is looking at defence capabilities at the NATO alliance. In her words, the task will not be completed for the Chicago summit timed for May.
“So, as I like to say, we have some serious homework that we still need to do to be ready to actually begin negotiations but, at the same time, we are already in some serious discussions with Russia and one of the topics which is of great interest, of course, is whether we can take some steps on transparency, involving these tactical nuclear weapons even before we get into serious negotiations," said the diplomat.
Lithuania and some other European nations are alarmed by the possibility of the United States withdrawing its tactical nuclear devices form the Old Continent without waiting for Russia to make the first step.
Withdrawal enthusiasts maintain that the weapons, which were used during the Cold War to deter countries of the Warsaw Pact from invading Western Europe, were no longer relevant, an opinion particularly accentuated by Germany but not supported by France.
Baltic countries not "special zone"
At meetings with Lithuanian officials, Gottemoeller also discussed conventional forces, another sensitive issue for the Baltic states.
Lithuanian officials have said that there had been proposals during negotiations to establish unfavorable restriction of military forces based on the geopolitical condition and listing the Baltic states as sensitive zones.
Nevertheless, the negotiations have reached a dead-lock lately, after the United States stopped sharing data with Russia last November, saying that Moscow had suspended its participation in the pact four years ago.
Gottemoeller expressed certitude that an agreement would be reached.
"Our view is that it is high time to modernize and revitalize the conventional arms control in Europe," she said.
Clinton's deputy emphasized that the Baltic states would also benefit from the agreement, as they – to Russia's indignation - have not joined the conventional arms control system.
"My view is that each of the Baltic states individually have serious and legitimate security concerns that should be served by conventional arms control regime in Europe," she noted.
"There is no kind of special zone to talk about here. It's a matter of engaging you on your security concerns and determining how conventional arms control can best respond to your problems," Gottemoeller added.
The original treaty on Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) was harmonized by 22 NATO countries and countries of the Warsaw Pact. The document was signed in November 1990 in an effort to replace military confrontation with new types of security relations.
The treaty was updated in Istanbul after signature of leaders of 30 countries. It envisages restrictions for every country, not blocs, as the case was with the earlier version.
Russia's 2007 decision to suspend adherence to some CFE terms and conditions came in response to the inability of NATO countries to ratify the 1999 version. This also has to do with the disputes with Moscow on deployment of forces in Moldova and Georgia.
America not abandoning Europe
The US diplomat also dismissed as ungrounded the fears expressed by some Europeans about the US plans to bring down its forces in Europe and focus on Asia.
Speaking at an informal meeting after seeing a US colleague, a top-ranking Lithuanian official said earlier this year that his impression was that “Americans were leaving, saying take care.”
Nevertheless, Gottemoeller said that partners in Europe remained very important to the US, while Asia was getting more attention due to its growing role in global economy.
"I think the notion that somehow US attention is shifting to Asia just isn't backed up by the facts," she said.
"There is a fact that we are placing more resources in Asia because there are important shifts in the economic activity in the world so it's important to be helping to protect sea lines of communication and that type of thing in that part of the world,“ Gottenmoeller said.
“But that's natural. It does not mean that there is a shift away from our important work with our European NATO allies," the diplomat said.