MOSCOW Moldova's rebel region of Transdniestria said on Monday it was ready to host Russian tactical missiles if the Kremlin were to ask, escalating growing tensions about defense between Moscow and Washington.
Transdniestria linked the offer to the possible deployment of U.S. interceptor missiles to neighboring Romania. Both Romania and Bulgaria have offered to host elements of a reconfigured U.S. missile shield.
Russia's most powerful politician, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and other officials have called U.S. missile defense plans an obstacle to a successor to the 1991 START nuclear arms reduction pact, under negotiation for months.
Transdniestria's leader Igor Smirnov was quoted by Interfax as saying he was prepared to host Russian missiles and made clear it was linked to the latest U.S. missile plans.
"As far as the Iskander (missile) is concerned, we have long said we are ready," he said.
Moldova's acting president, Mihai Ghimpu, dismissed Smirnov's offer as unrealistic, telling Reuters Transdniestria is "an artificial creation and has no right to a voice in Moldovan-Russian relations."
The breakaway region's offer came a day after Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow's ambassador to Washington had raised the missile issue, RIA news agency reported.
MISSILE OFFER 'SURPRISES'
"We have already asked our partners in Washington ... what does this all mean and why after the Romanian 'surprise' there is a Bulgarian 'surprise' now," Lavrov was quoted by RIA as saying in Nicaragua.
The Bush administration had planned to deploy interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic, but President Barack Obama amended plans for the shield, which he says aims to defend against ballistic missile threats from Iran.
This month, the NATO and European Union member Romania, which borders Moldova, said it would accept U.S. interceptor missiles under a reconfigured plan. On February 12, Bulgaria expressed its readiness to play a role [ID:nLDE61B157].
The revised anti-missile system crosses one of the red lines -- along with NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia -- that Moscow drew as conditions of its agreement to "reset" U.S. relations, said Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Masha Lipman.
"Now Romania and Bulgaria are an issue. This further nurtures the distrust on the Russian side -- the notion that the U.S. is not seeking to build relations with Russia and develop a constructive dialogue but is pursuing its own goals regardless," said Lipman.
Apart from delays in agreeing a replacement for the START treaty, which expired in December, she said Washington has received less cooperation from Moscow than it had hoped on Iran's nuclear program and Afghanistan.
"It was easy to change the rhetoric because there was a new man in the White House, but to change the substance, to overcome the distrust is so much more difficult," she said.
(Additional reporting by Conor Humphries, Amie Ferris-Rotman and Alexander Tanas; editing by Robin Pomeroy)