By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top Republican in the Senate urged President Barack Obama on Tuesday to refrain from giving Russia and China any assurances about possible limits to U.S. missile defenses, days before a NATO summit in Chicago.
The Obama administration should make no pledge that would pre-empt a U.S.-led shield capable of thwarting any missile "that might be launched at us," not just an accidental launch or one from a nation like Iran or North Korea, Senator Jon Kyl said in an interview with Reuters.
Moscow opposes an emerging NATO shield in Europe for fear it could weaken Russia by gaining the capability to shoot down nuclear-tipped missiles that Russia relies on as a deterrent to attack.
Obama was caught on camera March 26 assuring then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more "flexibility" to deal with such Russian concerns after the November 6 U.S. presidential election.
"I don't think the president is going to get away with not talking about this until after the election," said Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, in charge of rounding up votes.
"He's going to have to talk about it during the campaign or allow those of us who are skeptical to assume, correctly, that he has every intention of imposing those limits."
Both former President George W. Bush, a Republican, and Obama, a Democrat, have sought to persuade Russia that missile-defense plans for Europe are designed only against the kind of limited attack that could potentially be launched by Iran or another Middle East country.
Shortly after taking back the Russian presidency this month, Vladimir Putin demanded that the United States give "firm guarantees" that the U.S.-engineered NATO shield would not be aimed at Russia.
NATO is set to declare, at a summit in Chicago Monday and Tuesday, a limited capability to protect Europe against ballistic missiles now that it has completed the first stage of the four-phase project due to wrap up by about 2020.
Russia's top military officer, Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov, has threatened to carry out a pre-emptive strike on US-led NATO missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe if Washington continues developing the shield without Russian approval.
Kyl, elaborating on a guest column in the Wall Street Journal, said offering Russia any assurances about the scope of the program would be a serious mistake, and the same holds for China, he told Reuters by telephone.
Kyl favors development of space-based interceptors as potentially the most cost-effective missile-defense approach.
Building ever more capable defenses "remains the best and most moral course for the United States to dissuade anyone from getting the idea that they could gain advantage over the United States," he said.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a private research group, described Kyl's approach as "unhelpful." He said successive U.S. administrations had failed to convince Russia that limited U.S. missile defenses were indeed limited.
Kyl's stance would prompt Moscow to "overreact even more" to the system being built in Europe, Kimball said.
(Editing by Anthony Boadle)