The United States has activated a missile-defense site in Romania, prompting an angry reaction from Moscow.
Senior U.S., NATO, and Romanian officials on May 12 attended the opening ceremony of the $800 million system in Deveselu, a village in southern Romania that used to host a Soviet air base.
U.S. and NATO officials have said the Romanian site -- along with a second one due to become operational in 2018 in Poland -- is intended to protect Europe from possible ballistic-missile threats from Iran, and is not aimed at Russia.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg underscored the latter point during the inauguration ceremony, saying that missile defense "does not undermine or weaken Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent."
The office of Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, has cast doubts on the true intentions of the program, questioning the need for protection against Iran following the deal negotiated in 2015 that curbs Iran's nuclear program. Various Russian officials have argued that the missile base poses a threat to Russia, see it is a Cold War-style show of force, and say it will further complicate Moscow's relationship with NATO.
The activation of the site comes amid troubled ties between NATO and Russia in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula two years ago, and despite Moscow's long-standing objections to NATO and U.S. missile-defense plans.
The system in Deveselu -- technically known as Aegis Ashore -- is tasked with shooting down rockets as part of a larger defense shield. The site covers 170 hectares and is equipped with Aegis radar and 44 land-to-air SM-3 missiles that have a 500-kilometer range. It is the first onshore installation of the larger system, parts of which have been deployed on U.S. naval ships in the Mediterranean and which will ultimately extend across Europe.
When asked at the ceremony whether the sites in Romania and Poland could develop technology that could counter Russian missiles, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said: "No, there are no plans at all to do that. This is for the broader defense against a threat that is outside the Euro-Atlantic area of operations."
Nevertheless, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on May 12 that Moscow was already taking measures for "securing the necessary level of security in Russia."
The comments added to speculation that Russia might deploy Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad exclave, which is wedged between Poland and Lithuania.
Stoltenberg, who earlier on May 12 met with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis in Bucharest, noted that Moscow had unilaterally terminated cooperative dialogue about missile defense in 2013.
On May 13, Polish and U.S. officials will break ground at the second planned missile-defense site, in the Polish village of Redzikowo, near the Baltic Sea. The site, which is expected to become operational by 2018, is located near Kaliningrad.
The NATO missile shield has been partly operational for several years, thanks to a radar site in Turkey, a missile-defense command center in Germany, and four U.S. warships with interceptor missiles on board that are based in southern Spain.
The Deveselu facility is expected to be placed under NATO control in July, at the alliance's summit in Warsaw.