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‘Take Out’ Russian Missiles? U.S. Envoy’s Remark Spurs Anger, and Pullback

WASHINGTON — The United States ambassador to NATO nearly set off a diplomatic incident on Tuesday when she suggested that the United States might “take out” Russian missiles that it views in violation of a longstanding arms control treaty.

Before the end of the day she was forced to issue a statement saying she did not mean to suggest that Washington was considering a pre-emptive strike against Russian missile sites.

The ambassador, Kay Bailey Hutchison, the former longtime Republican senator from Texas, made the comments during a news conference in Brussels. Her threat was ambiguous: It was not clear if she meant that the United States would consider blowing up the missiles on the launchpad or intercepting them, with antimissile defense, after a launch.

But the response from Moscow was so sharp that Ms. Hutchison turned to Twitter, often the Trump administration’s favored way of making foreign policy pronouncements, to declare, “I was not talking about pre-emptively striking Russia.”

By that time, however, the Russians had already seized on the remarks. “Who authorized this woman to make such allegations?” Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, told reporters. “The American people? Do ordinary Americans know that they are paying out of their pockets for so-called diplomats who behave so aggressively and destructively?”

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told CNN that the Kremlin “prefers not to pay extra attention to statements by ambassadors while we have too many uncertainties with the messages on the higher level.”

At the State Department, officials tried to minimize the import of Ms. Hutchison’s comments, noting that American objections to Russia’s relatively new class of cruise missiles go back to the Obama administration, which also criticized President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for seeking ways around arms restrictions.

But behind the scenes, officials in Washington pressed for Ms. Hutchison to backtrack on her comments, especially after the Russians mocked her remarks, and then suggested that it was the United States, not Russia, that was deploying weapons in violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, which dates to the Reagan administration.

American officials suggested that Ms. Hutchison, a politician for years before President Trump asked her to represent the United States at NATO, an institution he has often called “obsolete,” was simply not in full control of her language on a critical issue: whether the United States would deal with the Russian deployment of new missiles with diplomacy, sanctions, missile defenses or military action.

Answering questions at NATO headquarters, Ms. Hutchison suggested that the United States was getting ready to document Russian violations of the treaty based on new information “we have uncovered.”

“We are asking our allies for their suggestions on a way forward that would bring Russia into compliance, because that is our goal: Russia in compliance,” she said, comments that echoed past statements in the Obama and Trump administrations.

But Ms. Hutchison also warned that if Russia did not change course, the United States might field its own weapons, which would require going ahead with “a development phase that is not allowed by the treaty right now.”

Then she was asked to be more specific about “what kind of countermeasures you are considering.” Ms. Hutchison then uttered the words that the State Department spent most of Tuesday walking back.

“The countermeasures would be to take out the missiles that are in development by Russia in violation of the treaty,” she said. “So that would be the countermeasure eventually.”

Pressed further, Ms. Hutchison said her first choice was to get the Russian missiles withdrawn, adding that if the Russians did not relent “we would then be looking at a capability to take out a missile that could hit any of our countries in Europe and hit America in Alaska.’’

That last statement seemed to suggest an upgrade to missile defenses. But it is not clear that current missile defense technology could protect against medium-range missile attacks, and Russia — like the United States — is working on other missiles, called hypersonics, that do not follow a clear path to a target. Those may, in time, overshadow the missiles that are now part of the I.N.F. treaty debate.

The State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, did not speak directly about Ms. Hutchison’s threat to “take out” the Russian missiles and tried to return the policy to where it has been: pressure on Russia to stop deploying the weapons.

“We’ve taken diplomatic, we’ve taken military, research and development and also economic measures to increase the cost on Russia and ensure the security of the United States and our allies if Russia chooses not to return into compliance with its treaty obligations.’’ she said. “So these are a series of ongoing conversations that are being had right now.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A5 of the New York edition with the headline: Envoy Clarifies a Threat To ‘Take Out the Missiles’. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Source: NYT > World

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