Despite U.S. change, Russia sticks to missile-shield demand
* Russia says demand for guarantees remains unchanged
* Says shift shows U.S. still determined to develop shields
* Moscow says deployments in Asia, elsewhere also a concern
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, March 18 (Reuters) - Russia reacted coolly on Monday to a change in U.S. plans for a European missile shield that Moscow has vehemently opposed, saying it would stick to its demand for binding guarantees that the system would not be used to shoot down its missiles.
A statement from the Foreign Ministry suggested that the U.S. shift, which analysts say should ease Russia's concern that the shield could compromise its security, is unlikely to end a dispute that has strained relations between the former Cold War foes.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Friday the Pentagon would add 14 new anti-missile interceptors in Alaska, among other steps, after North Korea threatened a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States.
To free up funds, U.S. officials said they were forgoing development of a new interceptor that would have been deployed in central Europe and has been a focus of Russia's stated fear that the shield would weaken its nuclear deterrent.
In its first official response to Hagel's statement, however, Russia said it would continue to call for legally binding guarantees and convincing technical evidence that U.S. missile defence systems were not aimed against Russia.
"The new plan shows that the United States continues to adhere to a course aimed at strengthening its global anti-missile defences and increasing their effectiveness," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"We believe this confirms the need to work out reliable, legally binding guarantees that American missile defence efforts are not aimed against Russia," it said, adding that Moscow also wants technical information that would prove there is no threat.
Washington says the anti-missile shield it is deploying in Europe is meant to counter a potential threat from Iran and poses no risk to Russia.
But Russia has said it would eventually enable the West to shoot down some Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), weakening its nuclear deterrent and tipping the post-Cold War balance of power. Some Russian officials have said they suspect that is the true aim of the system.
The United States is unlikely to satisfy Russia's demand for legally binding guarantees because of concerns about placing any limits on American missile defence development or giving the Kremlin a say in U.S. defence policy.
President Barack Obama pleased Russia and helped usher in a period of warmer ties with a 2009 decision to scale down the plans of the Bush administration for a European anti-missile shield.
But Moscow soon began warning that the new plan also posed a threat and the issue because a serious irritant.
Days before Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency last May, Russia's military chief of staff said that Moscow could carry out pre-emptive strikes on future NATO missile defence installations in Europe to protect its security.
In its statement on Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the European shield is not the only aspect of U.S. missile defences that is a cause for worry.
Moscow "has also expressed concern about the spread of this approach in other regions of the world, including the Asia-Pacific region", it said.
China, whose new leader Xi Jinping is to meet Putin this week during his first trip abroad as president, said on Monday that strengthening U.S. anti-missile defences would "intensify antagonism". (Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Michael Roddy)