Russia is ready to abandon plans for a wholesale renewal of its nuclear missile arsenal if the United States stops deployment of a controversial missile shield, a Russian general said Friday.
The comments by the commander of Russia's strategic missile forces came amid increasing verbal exchanges between the two sides over missile defence ahead of the inauguration of Barack Obama as US president on January 20.
"If the Americans give up their plans to deploy the third position area and other elements of strategic missile defence, then undoubtedly we will respond in kind," said General Nikolai Solovtsov, quoted by Interfax news agency.
"And an array of programmes, expensive programmes, will simply not be necessary for us," he added.
The term "third position area" refers to planned US missile defence facilities in Eastern Europe that have aroused a furious reaction from Russia.
"Today we do not have ideological reasons for confrontation. And as we realise plans for the development of the strategic missile forces, we are not planning to frighten anyone," Solovtsov said.
"We are simply doing that which is called for by today's realities," he added.
In separate comments, Solovtsov said Russia was extending to 30 years the lifespan of its Soviet-era RS-20 Voivoda intercontinental missiles -- known as "Satans" in NATO parlance -- and developing a new generation of the weapons.
Meanwhile a senior Russian diplomat criticised the United States' approach to negotiations on the renewal of START I, a key nuclear arms control treaty that expires in December 2009, saying it could be "seriously destabilising."
"The approach proposed by the US side could eliminate a key element of our bilateral relations: predictability in strategic arms control, seriously destabilising the strategic situation," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in a statement.
A prominent US senator visiting Moscow said both countries understood it was "very important" to find a successor to START and expressed optimism that the landmark treaty would be renewed despite the dispute over missile defence.
"I do not have the impression that the START treaty renewal is linked to the missile defence issues," Senator Richard Lugar told reporters.
Earlier this week US and Russian officials failed to reach a breakthrough in talks on renewing START, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, a 1991 deal that limited the number of missiles and warheads each side may have.
Solovtsov told reporters on Wednesday that by 2020 Russia would replace its Soviet-era nuclear missile arsenal with new systems featuring "improved combat characteristics" and capable of overcoming defences like the US missile shield.
Russia has been working hard to upgrade its ageing missile forces and has tested new missiles in recent months.
Moscow has repeatedly lashed out at US plans -- spearheaded by outgoing US President George W. Bush -- to deploy an anti-missile radar facility in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland.
Russia views the planned facilities in the two former Soviet-bloc countries as a threat to its national security.
However the United States insists that its missile shield is not directed against Russia and is instead meant to protect against "rogue states" like Iran.
Crucially, Obama has yet to say whether he will continue the project.
But US arms negotiator John Rood said Wednesday that Russia had hardened its stance toward US plans for a missile shield in an apparent bid to "test the mettle" of Obama.
"And the future will show how the new administration chooses to answer that challenge," said Rood, acting under secretary of state for arms control and international security.