With talks deadlocked between the United States and Russia over plans to deploy a missile defense shield in Europe, a top Russian general raised the possibility of a possible pre-emptive strike against launch sites if a deal could not be reached.
The warning by Gen. Nikolai Makarov followed the conclusion of the international Missile Defense Conference in Russia, where Russian officials lobbied against the missile shield.
"Taking into account the destabilizing nature of the missile defense system and, in particular, creating an illusion of an unpunishable strike, the decision about a pre-emptive use of force will be made in a period of heightened tension," Makarov said.
The Obama administration and its European allies have been trying to ease Russia's fears over the project by insisting that the system is directed toward countering the missile threat from the Middle East from which Russia also needs protection.
Since NATO approved the U.S.-designed system at last year's summit , Poland, Romania, Spain and Turkey have agreed to deploy parts of it.
NATO asked Russia to participate in the system but negotiations have been deadlocked over Russia's demand for a legally binding treaty guaranteeing the shield would not be used as a deterrent to Moscow's own systems.
During Thursday's conference, the U.S. special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense said there were discussions aimed at easing Russia's concern.
"We discussed how the European missile defense system is designed and configured to counter ballistic missile threats from the Middle East, and we have made clear we have no intent or desire to undermine Russia's strategic deterrent," said Ellen Tauscher, the special envoy.
But Marakov believes the defense shield would be able to take out Russian missiles.
To drive the point home, Russia opened up one of its elite radar operations to conference attendees and shown a computer simulation of an attack against Europe and Russia.
As part of the simulation, four missiles were launched from somewhere in the southern hemisphere and targeted three cities in Europe and one in Russia.
When Russia launched a missile to intercept it, its missile was taken out by the European missile defense system.
But the United States says the radar and interceptor missiles it plans to place in eastern Europe won't have the ability to shoot down Russian missiles.
NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow, who listened to Makarov's comments, told reporters he does not believe a missile defense system in Europe would not effect Russia.
"I took careful note of the details that Gen. Makarov presented about their plans. But he did indicate that those steps would not be implemented until Russia was convinced that the threat, the so-called threat from our missile defense system was growing," he said.
"So we have time to reassure Russia that there is no threat today and there'll be no threat tomorrow."
Late last year, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened to withdraw from the START treaty on nuclear weapons reductions and deploy ballistic missiles in its exclave of Kaliningrad on its border with Europe if NATO moved ahead with the plans for missile defense.
Tensions increased in December when Russia's ambassador to NATO, suggested Moscow would close transit routes that send vital supplies to troops in Afghanistan.
The deadlock over the missile defense shield has also proved problematic for leaders from both the United States and Russia.
At a nuclear summit in South Korea, President Barack Obama could be heard asking Dmitry Medvedev for some "space" on the missile defense system in Europe, telling the Russian president he will have more "flexibility" after the November election.
"This is my last election," Obama said. "After my election I have more flexibility."
In response, Medvedev said he would pass on the information to the incoming prime minister and former president, Vladimir Putin.
Republicans in the United States seized on the comment as an opportunity to criticize the president for politicizing foreign policy decisions.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly in recent years warned the U.S. and its European allies against deploying such a defense system, saying Russia would be forced to deploy its own countermeasures.