By Stefan Bos
Russia and the West appeared to be moving closer to a confrontation Tuesday after Moscow challenged United States compliance with a key arms control treaty Monday; while U.S. ally Lithuania accused Russia of deploying nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to the nearby Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic.
Russia's government warned that U.S. President Donald Trump's new nuclear strategy lowers the threshold for the superpowers to use their atomic weapons against each other.
The dire assessment came as Moscow claimed it had met its requirements under the New START agreement that was signed in 2010 and entered into force a year later. It restricts both the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads on a maximum of 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers.
The deadline to verify both countries' compliance was Monday.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Russia now has 527 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers. It gave a tally of 1,444 strategic nuclear warheads. The U.S. reported it has complied with the limits since August.
Russia has acknowledged Washington's position on meeting the targets. But it remains concerned about US military plans to diversify its nuclear arsenal and developing new, smaller atomic bombs, mainly to counter Russia.
The latest thinking was revealed in a Pentagon policy statement known as the Nuclear Posture Review.
Washington fears Moscow sees US nuclear weapons as too big to be used - meaning they are no longer an active deterrent.
Developing smaller nukes would apparently challenge that assumption. Low-yield weapons are smaller, less powerful bombs with strength below 20 kilotons.
U.S. President Trump also mentioned the new strategy in his recent State of the Union address. "As part of our defense, we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression,” the president said.
“Perhaps someday in the future, there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet,” Trump stressed.
Adding to the worst tensions since the Cold War are Lithuania's allegations that Russia is deploying nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to its Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic.
Russia has previously sent Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad for drills, but Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said that this time they were being deployed for a "permanent presence".
Fears about a nuclear standoff between Russia and members of the NATO military alliance come after the West and Moscow already face tensions over Russia's role in the conflict in Ukraine. Some 10,000 people have died in the conflict between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels.
The United States is also concerned about Russia's role in the war in Syria and Moscow's alleged meddling in the recent US presidential elections.
Moscow has denied wrongdoing.