The United States activated an $800 million missile shield in Romania on Thursday, incensing Russia.
The United States maintains that the shield is meant to protect NATO allies from threats from the Middle East, such as Iran’s ballistic missile program. But the Kremlin is worried the system could be used against its missile stock, which it describes as a strategic deterrence.
"This is not about Russia,” Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said at a ceremony in Romania. “This is about the collective self-defense of the NATO. It’s about the self-defense of Romania and United States forces in Europe. And it’s about missile defense.”
The Aegis Ashore, as the shield is officially called, has been in the works for almost a decade. It’s designed to detect, track, engage and destroy ballistic missiles in flight outside the atmosphere.
The Romania site is part of a system that also includes a radar facility in Turkey, four U.S. guided-missile destroyers in Spain and a headquarters in Germany. The United States is also breaking ground on a final site in Poland on Friday that is expected to come online in 2018.
Russia is furious the United States and NATO set up the system in formerly communist-ruled Eastern Europe.
Russia and U.S.-NATO relations have been sour since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014; the missile shield is the latest instance of mounting tension.
Andrey Kelin, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official, said the shield is part of an effort to contain Russia.
"These decisions by NATO can only exacerbate an already difficult situation," Kelin said to non-governmental Russian news agency Interfax, according to Reuters.
The Kremlin also argued that it doubts the shield is directed toward Iran because of the Iranian nuclear deal.
"The situation with Iran has changed dramatically," said Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin, according to Reuters.
But Work said Russia was never a factor in the development of the system.
“I was in on every single decision-making step along that way, and Russia never came into the conversation,” he said. “It was always about ballistic missiles coming out of the Middle Eastern region.”
Still, the shield comes at time when the United States and NATO have plans to increase forces in Europe in an attempt to deter Russia.
The United States plans to bulk up its European Reassurance Initiative to $3.4 billion and deploy a rotating armored brigade combat team to Europe. NATO is also considering establishing a rotational ground force in the Baltics.
“If we take actions to deter Russia, we say that is what we are doing,” Work said. “We explain why we’re doing it. We explain what actions Russia takes, which causes us to have a reaction.”