MOSCOW Russia has no plans to mass armed forces near its Western borders after freezing compliance with a landmark arms treaty signed at the end of the Cold War, senior government and army officials said on Saturday.
But Russia's top general said the firing of a weapon from a U.S. anti-missile system in eastern Europe could be misread by the country's defenses, triggering the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in return.
"The firing of an anti-missile rocket from Poland could be seen by Russia's automated system as the launch of a ballistic missile, which could provoke a responsive strike," army Chief of Staff Yuri Baluyevsky told a news conference.
Russia suspended its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty on Wednesday. It says the treaty, designed to limit battlefield weapons, such as tanks and armored vehicles, on either side of the Iron Curtain, gives too much scope for an enlarged NATO to beef up its forces.
Western capitals regard the move as another sign of Russia's assertive approach to foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin, who discussed security with Belarussian ally Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk on Friday.
Russia, meanwhile, has criticized a U.S. plan to site an anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic that Washington says will protect against attack from "rogue states" such as Iran.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak said Russia would continue dialogue with the West despite the CFE moratorium.
"Russia does not plan any extraordinary expansion of forces that would pose a threat to other states," he told the same news conference.
"The introduction of the moratorium is not the end of the story. But the dialogue should be serious."
Russia's biggest grievance with the CFE pact is the limit on deployments west of the Ural mountains, while armaments are not capped in new eastern European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
Russia has watched NATO's eastward expansion with unease. Its concern has heightened as Washington prepares to open bases in new alliance members Bulgaria and Romania.
Policymakers in Moscow also fear NATO forces could be deployed in one of the ex-Soviet Baltic states, within striking distance of Russia's second city, St Petersburg.
Baluyevsky said Moscow and Washington were locked in a "direct stand-off" over the U.S. missile shield plan in Poland and the Czech Republic, once part of the Warsaw Pact but NATO members since 2004.
And the general urged the West to take the CFE moratorium, which took effect on December 12, seriously.
"This is not a bluff, but an objective necessity," he said. "The USA and NATO are using it (the CFE) as a lever to exert pressure on Russia.
"We woke up on December 12 in the same situation. It doesn't mean there will be a massive arms build-up to the north, to the south and to the west," Baluyevsky added.
"But at least I, as head of the armed forces, can exercise complete freedom in movement of the armed forces on Russian territory. I didn't have that right prior to December 12."
(Additional reporting by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Richard Balmforth)