Russia urges US to withdraw nuclear weapons from Europe

Monday, February 7, 2011

MOSCOW/BRUSSELS - Russia Monday urged the US to withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, as NATO’s top official said he was optimistic talks on the issue could be held.

Such a move by the US would build confidence, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in Moscow, Interfax news agency reported.

The call came two days after the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, came into force between Russia and the US.

Earlier, Russia’s State Duma parliament had asked the US to redeploy its nuclear weapons back home and dismantle the infrastructure for them on foreign soil.

The number of US battlefield nuclear weapons in Europe is a closely-guarded secret, but unofficial reports and leaks suggest that there are some 200 warheads stored in depots in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey.

Over the past 18 months, NATO officials have repeatedly said that they would like to see New START followed by an agreement on reducing the tactical nuclear stockpiles in Europe. According to NATO, Russia currently has some 5,000 such warheads on its European territory.

In a separate briefing Monday in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said new START made him “optimistic” that it would be possible to launch negotiations on the issue.

Meanwhile, speaking in Moscow, Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov repeated his call for NATO to build a common missile defence programme with Russia in Europe.

NATO leaders in November agreed to set up a NATO anti-missile system in Europe, and invited Russia to start talks on how each side could share information from its planned system with the other. Russia accepted, but has since fiercely criticised the NATO plan.

“At the moment, there are no weapons in the region that are a threat to NATO,” Antonov was quoted as saying. “In this context, any defence system built solely by NATO would be directed at Russia.”

In such a case Russia would react militarily, he said, hinting at the deployment of short-range missiles.

A number of top Russian politicians have said that NATO should scrap its plan and, instead, set up a joint NATO-Russia missile shield which would only be able to fire if both sides agreed to it.

Rasmussen dismissed that proposal Monday.

“NATO is responsible for the protection and defence of NATO allies … This responsibility can’t be outsourced. Honestly speaking, would you expect the Russian people to accept that defence of Russian territory should be taken care of by NATO?” he asked.

However, he said that he was “quite optimistic” that a deal could be reached, despite “slightly different ideas” on the concept.

Antonov also said that Russia wanted “further nuclear disarmament”, and that Moscow was prepared to talk with other nuclear powers in addition to the US.

NATO nations are set to review their nuclear and conventional forces at a summit in early 2012, with a number of nations, including Germany, pushing for the alliance to reduce its nuclear capability.

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