NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says Russia continues to “develop and deploy” 9M729 cruise-missile systems in breach of a key Cold War-era nuclear arms control agreement.
Stoltenberg made the comments on February 12, two days after a German newspaper reported that Russia had deployed the missile at more locations than previously thought.
The NATO chief also said that the alliance will discuss this week "what steps NATO should take to adapt to a world with more Russian missiles."
“Any steps we take will be coordinated, measured, and defensive,” Stoltenberg added, insisting that the alliance doesn’t intend to deploy new ground-based nuclear missiles in Europe.
On February 2, the United States announced that it will withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, after Washington and NATO repeatedly accused Moscow of violating the accord by developing the 9M729 cruise missile, also known as the SSC-8.
Russia, which denies the accusation, said it was also withdrawing from the INF Treaty, which banned both countries from developing, producing, and deploying ground-launched cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
Speaking at a news conference ahead of a two-day NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels starting on February 13, Stoltenberg urged Moscow to seize the "last opportunity” to return to compliance with the INF Treaty.
He said that Moscow “continues to develop and deploy several battalions of the SSC-8 missile, despite the efforts of the United States and other NATO allies – over many years – to encourage Russia to return to compliance.”
Citing an unidentified Western intelligence source, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAZ) reported on February 10 that 9M729 battalions were stationed in Mozdok in Russia's North Caucasus region of North Ossetia and in Shuya, close to Moscow.
That’s in addition to a training battalion stationed at the rocket-testing development site in Kapustin Yar in southern Russia and one in Kamyshlov, east of Yekaterinburg, the paper said.
Each of Russia’s four 9M729 battalions has four launchers on wheels, each of which has four missiles -- meaning that Russia now has at least 64 such missiles, according to FAZ.
NATO ministers were also set to discuss in Brussels NATO’s missions and operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Iraq.
“In Afghanistan, the situation remains difficult, but we also see efforts for peace,” Stoltenberg said, as talks to end the country's 17-year war involving U.S. and Taliban representatives in Qatar appear to be gaining momentum.
On Kosovo, Stoltenberg said the ministers will “review the level of our support for the Kosovo Security Force [KSF] after the change of its mandate.”
Kosovar lawmakers in December voted to convert its 2,500-member KSF into a national army with some 5,000 personnel and more substantial weaponry, despite fierce opposition from Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs, Serbia, and its ally Russia.
Stoltenberg also said that the defense minister of North Macedonia, Radmila Shekerinska, will take “a seat at NATO’s table” for the first time as an official invitee in all of the ministerial sessions.
Skopje signed a protocol earlier this month that could see the former Yugoslav republic become the military alliance's 30th member if the move is ratified by all current NATO members.