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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pentagon chief Robert Gates dismissed as "empty rhetoric" on Sunday Russian warnings that Moscow would target Poland for a possible military strike because Warsaw agreed to host part of a U.S. missile shield.
"Russia is not going to launch nuclear missiles at anybody," Defense Secretary Gates said on ABC News' "This Week." "The Poles know that. We know it."
Col-General Anatoliy Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian general staff, told Interfax on Friday that Russian military doctrine would allow for a possible nuclear strike, after Warsaw agreed to deploy 10 interceptors at a site in Poland as part of the missile shield.
This was "strident rhetoric and probably fairly empty rhetoric," said Gates, a former CIA director and expert on Russia.
"I'm not quite sure why this deputy chief of staff felt compelled to make those kinds of threats," Gates said, adding that the threat was a throwback to the days of the old Soviet Union, when Moscow was Poland's overlord in the Warsaw Pact.
Poland is now a member of the NATO alliance.
Warsaw agreed on Thursday to host the 10 interceptors after Washington agreed to boost Poland's air defenses. The Czech Republic agreed to host a radar for the shield, although both countries' parliaments must approve the agreements.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told "Fox News Sunday" she would go to Warsaw this week to sign the missile shield deal, after attending a NATO meeting in Belgium on Tuesday.
Washington says the shield will be aimed at protecting the United States and its allies from long-range missiles that could be fired by Iran or groups such as al Qaeda.
The Kremlin has long disputed this, and opposed the planned shield as a threat to Russia. Russia's nuclear arsenal includes more than 5,000 ballistic warheads.
Tension between Moscow and Washington has risen in recent days, since Georgia's attempt to retake separatist South Ossetia by force provoked a massive Russian counter-attack. Russia said on Sunday it would start withdrawing on Monday.
In a separate interview with CNN, Gates said Washington had agreed to give Moscow physical and technical access to the missile shield installations.
"We have agreed, along with our partners in Poland and the Czech Republic, to give the Russians access both physical and technical access so they know what's going on every step of the way," he said.
"We've agreed not to even make the interceptors operational until the Iranians have test-launched a missile that has the range to hit much of Western Europe, not to mention Russia. So this (Russian warning) is really an old song that they're singing and it really just doesn't play," he said.
Additional reporting by Diane Bartz, editing by Patricia Zengerle and David Wiessler