MOSCOW — As part of its plan to deploy additional ballistic missile interceptors to counter North Korea, the United States has effectively scrapped the final phase of a Europe-based missile defense system that was fiercely opposed by Russia and cited repeatedly by the Kremlin as a major obstacle to cooperation on nuclear arms reductions and other issues.
Russian officials have so far declined to comment. But Russian news accounts quickly noted the decision could portend a breakthrough in what has been a largely intractable dispute between Russia and the United States for years.
Pentagon officials said those longstanding objections by Russia played no role in the decision to reconfigure the missile interceptor program, which they said Friday was based on the increased threat from North Korea, and on technological difficulties and budget considerations related to the Europe-based program.
Still, other Obama administration officials acknowledged potential benefits if the decision is well-received in Moscow.
“There’s still an absolutely firm commitment to European missile defense, which is not about Russia; it’s about Iran," said a senior administration official. “... If there are side benefits that accrue with Russia, so be it. But that wasn’t a primary driver of this policy change."
In recent weeks, Russia had also indicated there was virtually no possibility of agreeing to further nuclear arms reductions beyond what was included in the New START Treaty — a major priority for President Barack Obama — without the United States first addressing Russia’s concerns about missile defense.