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Russia tested new strategic and tactical missiles on Tuesday, flexing its muscles amid military disputes with the West and bitter opposition to a US plan for a defensive shield in Europe.
First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said Russia tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple independent warheads and a tactical cruise missile with an increased range, boasting that the weapons can penetrate any missile defense system.
"As of today, Russia has new tactical and strategic complexes that are capable of overcoming any existing or future missile defense systems," Ivanov said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency. "So in terms of defense and security, Russians can look calmly to the country's future."
President Vladimir Putin and Ivanov, a former defense minister seen as a potential Kremlin favorite to succeed Putin next year, repeatedly have said Russia would continue to improve its nuclear arsenal and respond to US plans to deploy components of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic - NATO nations that were in Moscow's front yard during the Cold War as Warsaw Pact members.
Russia has bristled over the plans, vocally dismissing US assertions that the system would be aimed at blocking possible attacks by Iran and saying it would destroy the strategic balance of forces in Europe.
"We consider it harmful and dangerous to turn Europe into a powder keg and to fill it with new kinds of weapons," Putin said Tuesday at a news conference with Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates.
Russian arms control expert Alexander Pikayev said the new ICBMs appeared to be part of Russia's promised response to the missile defense plans and, more broadly, an effort to "strengthen the strategic nuclear triad - land-based, sea-based and air-based delivery systems for nuclear weapons - which suffered significant downsizing" amid financial troubles following the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The ICBM, called the RS-24, was fired from a mobile launcher at the Plesetsk launch site in northwestern Russia. Its test warhead landed on target some 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles) away on the Far Eastern Kamchatka Peninsula, a statement from the Strategic Missile Forces said.
The new missile is seen as eventually replacing the aging RS-18s and RS-20s that are the backbone of the country's missile forces, the statement said. Those missiles are known in the West as the SS-19 Stiletto and the SS-18 Satan.
The RS-24 "strengthens the capability of the attack groups of the Strategic Missile Forces by surmounting anti-missile defense systems, at the same time strengthening the potential for nuclear deterrence," the statement said.
Ivanov said the missile was a new version of the Topol-M, first commissioned in 1997 and known as the SS-27 in the West, but one that can carry multiple independent warheads, ITAR-Tass reported. Existing Topol-M missiles are capable of hitting targets more than 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) away.
Pikayev, a senior analyst at the Moscow-based Institute for World Economy and International Relations, said that little had been revealed about the missile's development, but that Russia has been seeking to improve its capability to penetrate missile defense systems and that the new missile would likely answer to that goal.
He said Russia had been working on a version of the Topol-M that could carry MIRVs - Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles - and that its development was probably "inevitable" after the U.S. withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in 2002 in order to develop a national missile defense.
Pikayev concurred with the missile forces statement that the RS-24 conforms with terms laid down in the START-I treaty, which is in force, and the 2002 Moscow Treaty, which calls for reductions in each country's nuclear arsenal to 1,700-2,000 warheads.
Ivanov also announced the successful "preliminary" test of an improved tactical cruise missile designed for a mobile Iskander-M launcher, ITAR-Tass reported. Ivanov said last year that Russian ground forces would commission 60 short-range Iskander-M missiles by 2015.
While Ivanov's saber-rattling about missile defense penetration was clearly aimed at the United States - and at Russians who will vote next March for a successor to Putin - Ivanov suggested Russia's armament efforts were also aimed at countering a potential treat from the Middle East and Asia.
"We see perfectly how our eastern and southern neighbors here, there and everywhere are acquiring short and medium-range missiles," he said in televised comments at Kapustin Yar, the southern Russian site where the tactical missiles were tested.
Ivanov said the 1987 Soviet-American treaty limiting such missiles - the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, or INF - is no longer effective because "dozens of countries - many of them along our borders - have acquired them. All of this is a real danger for us and the consequences can be unpredictable." he said.
He emphasized the need to equip the armed forces with "the most modern, precise weapons" and suggested Russia could arm itself with missiles whose range exceeds the lower limit of 500 kilometers (310 miles) set in the INF. The ranges of Russia's missiles are "for now within the commitments that Russia has taken upon itself, but I stress: for now," ITAR-Tass quoted him as saying.
Russia is also embroiled in a dispute with the West over another Soviet-era arms pact, the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.
Putin has announced a moratorium on observance of the treaty and threatened to withdraw altogether if the United States and other NATO members do not ratify an 1999 amended version.
Russia said Monday that it lodged a formal request for a conference among treaty signatories in Vienna next week.
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