Russia is acting in a “dangerous and destabilising” manner by developing nuclear-tipped missiles that could threaten European cities, the head of Nato has said.
Countries across the continent are now taking strong defensive measures by arming themselves with the latest anti-missile systems.
But the alliance does not want to enter into another nuclear arms race with Moscow, said Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato Secretary General. "We have also seen a pattern over many years of irresponsible Russian nuclear rhetoric aimed at intimidating and threatening Nato allies," he said. "Russia's behaviour is destabilising and dangerous."
Defence ministers across the 30 member countries raised the issue of Russia’s growing nuclear missile arsenal and its implication for Nato’s security.
Moscow has developed the sophisticated SSC-8 missile that can be nuclear-tipped and “can reach European cities with little warning time,” Mr Stoltenberg said.
Russia is understood to have just under 100 of the low-detection cruise missiles that have a range of about 2,500km and a speed of 720kph.
“The SSC-8 missiles are dual-capable, mobile and hard to detect. And they lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons,” the Nato leader said.
Development of the missile led to the demise last year of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), signed by the Soviet Union and United States in 1987. The treaty had seen 2,692 nuclear missiles destroyed and the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from European territory. The presence of the US arsenal had caused controversy with continual demonstrations at places such as Greenham Common in England.
Nato leaders were also warned Russia was modernising its intercontinental ballistic missiles and that a “hypersonic glide vehicle” had entered operations. The Avangard missile reaches speeds of 11,200kph and can make sharp evasive manoeuvres, which protects it from missile defence systems. Russia has also tested its air-launched ballistic missile system.
Nato ministers have now agreed a package of political and military actions that includes strengthening its integrated air and missile defence, Mr Stoltenberg said.
Several allies have announced that they are buying new air and missile defence systems, including US Patriot anti-missile and the highly effective Aster 30 air defence systems, which can hit an object the size of a cricket ball travelling at the speed of sound. The system is already deployed on Royal Navy Type 45 destroyers.
With both Britain and France the only Nato members in Europe retaining nuclear weapons the continent still has a capability to restrain Russian actions.
“The Nato nuclear deterrent in Europe remains vital for peace and freedom in Europe. And today we decided on additional steps to keep the Nato nuclear deterrent safe, secure and effective,” Mr Stoltenberg said. “We will maintain our deterrence and defence but we will not mirror Russia.”
In response to concerns that the US President, Donald Trump, might try to redeploy nuclear weapons on European soil the Secretary General said: “Nato does not want a new arms race. We’re not going to mirror what Russia is doing and we don’t have any intention of deploying new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe.”
He added that the alliance had reduced its nuclear arsenal in Europe by 90 per cent since the end of the Cold War.
Ministers also called on China to engage in helping de-escalate the proliferation of weapons.
“As a major military power, China also has major responsibilities. So as a rising global power, it is high time for China to participate in global arms control,” Mr Stoltenberg said.