Missile-defence system for Nato now operational, to fury of Kremlin
Tensions between Russia and the West rose still further yesterday when Nato declared that a missile-defence site in Romania had become operational.
A battery of American SM-3 interceptors, designed to shoot down incoming missiles, was activated at Deveselu military base.
A similar facility is due to become operational in Poland in 2018.
Only a handful of interceptors will be deployed at the two bases, enough to protect Europe against attack from a country possessing a small arsenal of nuclear missiles.
The missile shield would be of minimal use against Russia, which has about 300 intercontinental ballistic missiles on land and scores more deployed on submarines.
Nonetheless, Russia claims to see the missile defence plan as a direct threat to the deterrent power of its own nuclear arsenal.
"From the very outset, we kept saying that, in the opinion of our experts, the deployment of an anti-missile defence poses a threat to Russia," said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman.
He described how President Vladimir Putin (pictured) had "repeatedly asked who that system was working against and who it would be working against in the future".
Nato had replied that the missile shield was designed to protect against a possible future threat from Iran.
But Mr Peskov pointed out that last year's agreement with Iran was supposed to have removed the possibility of the country obtaining a nuclear arsenal.
"Now we know that the situation involving Iran has changed cardinally," said Mr Peskov.
"But the questions that have been repeatedly asked from Moscow, including those from President Putin, have retained their relevance."
The plan to protect Europe from any future missile threat is based upon SM-3 interceptor batteries in Poland and Romania - both of which rely on the advanced Aegis radar - and a new 'X-band' radar station in Turkey.
In addition, a number of Nato warships carrying interceptors are deployed in the Mediterranean.
Experts point out that the system is clearly directed towards a possible threat from the Middle East.
"In the grand scheme of things, does this make a real difference to the Russian strategic nuclear deterrent? The answer is no," said Douglas Barrie, the senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"Everything is configured to look in the other direction.
"The whole intercept geometry is not pointing towards Russia. If you were thinking about Russia, you just wouldn't configure it in this way."
But there are fears that Russia might use the activation of the first element of the missile defence shield as an excuse to move nuclear weapons to sensitive locations, for example, the Kaliningrad enclave that borders Poland and Lithuania.
An opinion poll published in the Polish press yesterday found that most Poles now favoured a return to conscription because of fears of Russian aggression.
Poland ditched conscription in 2008, but Russia's annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine appear to have persuaded many of the country's people that it should now return. The survey showed that 58pc of Poles were now in favour of conscription, with only 34pc against.