Amid rising tensions with Russia, the U.S. defense chief said Washington and its allies may "adjust" the timing for fielding antimissile systems in Europe.
For now, "we are continuing with our schedule with the enhanced adaptive approach to fulfill the commitments that we've made in the interests of Poland, Romania and our NATO partners," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.
He spoke alongside Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak after holding bilateral talks to discuss options for enhancing Polish security. The discussions came against a backdrop of continuing concerns about Moscow's incursion in Ukraine and possible further meddling into former Warsaw Pact territory.
In response to a reporter's question about the potential for compressing the timetable for fielding interceptors in Poland as a signal to Russia, Hagel said: "We will adjust where we need to adjust. Obviously the whole point about ... missile defense is about real threats. It's not about theory."
The secretary also emphasized that U.S. missile defense systems in Europe, though, are "not a threat to Russia."
Moscow views U.S. missile defenses as a challenge to nuclear stability on the continent. Washington maintains that the interceptors are intended as protection against potential missile strikes from the Middle East and do not have the technical capacity to engage Russian strategic nuclear missiles.
Under the U.S. "phased adaptive approach" for providing missile protection to NATO allies, interceptors capable of defeating short- and medium-range ballistic missiles are due to be installed in Romania in 2015, and systems capable of targeting intermediate-range missiles are slated to be deployed in Poland in 2018. Moscow is particularly concerned about the interceptors intended for fielding at the Polish Redzikowo base.
In recent weeks, several U.S. lawmakers have raised the possibility of speeding up the pace for deploying interceptors in Europe. The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency says the deployment schedule could be accelerated if more money is allocated to the Romania program, and if there are no major technology-development challenges with the next-generation missiles planned for Poland.
In comments to reporters, Siemoniak underlined how crucial the interceptor deployment is to Poland, which twice before has agreed to host more-sophisticated U.S. antimissile systems only to see those plans canceled.
The Polish defense minister said Hagel had "reconfirmed" U.S. plans to implement a future phase of the European protective architecture under which the advanced defensive systems would be deployed in his country. He also noted the interceptors planned for fielding in Romania would provide missile-defense coverage to Poland.
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a live call-in press conference on Thursday criticized Washington for its refusal to give Moscow a legally binding promise that its interceptors in Europe would never target Russian nuclear arms.
"We are told: 'This is not against you,'" Putin was quoted as saying by ITAR-Tass. "But everyone at the expert level understands that the deployment of these systems close to our border covers the positions of our land-based strategic missiles."
This has not deterred Russia, said Putin, adding: "We will be patient and will persistently conduct negotiations" on the matter.
The Obama administration last month said it had suspended talks with Russia on areas for potential antimissile cooperation due to Moscow's actions in Ukraine. High-level Russian officials said this month, though, that the suspension made little difference because the discussions had made little, if any, progress.