ZURICH Russia's top general said on Monday that plans to deploy missiles in an enclave next to Poland had not been shelved, despite a decision by the United States to rethink plans for missile defense in Europe.
But a former Russian diplomatic negotiator indicated he thought the deployments in Kaliningrad region, bordering Poland, unlikely to go ahead. Alternative U.S. proposals for sea-based defenses appeared less likely to raise Kremlin objections.
President Barack Obama's decision to scrap a land-based missile defense system has been welcomed by Russia, which had threatened to deploy short-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad if the United States refused to drop the plans.
The Kremlin always said Russia would only deploy the missiles as a counter-measure if Washington went ahead with its missile shield. Moscow said the shield threatened its national security and would upset the strategic balance in Europe.
On Saturday Russian deputy defense minister Vladimir Popovkin said in an interview that "naturally we will scrap the measures that Russia planned to take" in response to the shield and specifically named Iskander deployment as one of them.
When asked about the matter on Monday, the chief of Russia's general staff, Nikolai Makarov, said: "There has been no such decision. It should be a political decision. It should be made by the president."
"They (the Americans) have not given up the anti-missile shield; they have replaced it with a sea-based component," Makarov told reporters on a plane from Moscow to Zurich.
The general was accompanying President Dmitry Medvedev on a trip to Switzerland.
It is highly unusual in Russia for two senior officials to contradict each other publicly on a sensitive matter of national and international importance.
It was not immediately clear why Makarov had done so, though some sources suggested the general might have wanted to emphasize that such an important decision could only be taken by the president and should not be announced by a deputy minister.
Former Russian diplomatic negotiator Roland Timerbayev of the Center for Political Studies Russia (PIR) said clarity on Russia's position would come after Medvedev meets U.S. President Barack Obama in New York on September 23.
"There's a diplomatic game going on, the whole thing will be decided when the two leaders meet in a few days time. I don't think this may be a stumbling block," said Timerbayev.
Makarov represents Russia's military, not the government, said Timerbayev, who felt there was little reason for Russia to oppose any sea-based missile shield.
"The sea is open to anyone, this is the right of any country to use the freedom of navigation, even if the U.S. were to send it (shield-carrying vessels) to the Mediterranean or the Baltic. The same is true for Russia of course."
The missile shield was conceived by the administration of former president George W, Bush to guard against any attack by "rogue" states such as Iran and North Korea. Iran has consistently denied Western accusations it is developing nuclear weapons and poses any threat to the region.
(Reporting by Oleg Shchedrov, additional reporting by Conor Sweeney, writing by Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Michael Stott and Ralph Boulton)