WASHINGTON (AFP) — Russia would cross "a red line for the United States of America" if it were to base nuclear capable bombers in Cuba, a top US air force officer warned on Tuesday.
"If they did I think we should stand strong and indicate that is something that crosses a threshold, crosses a red line for the United States of America," said General Norton Schwartz, nominated to be the air force's chief of staff.
He was referring to a report in the newspaper Izvestia that said the Russian military is thinking of flying long-range bombers to Cuba on a regular basis in response to US plans to install missile defenses in eastern Europe.
Izvestia cited an unnamed senior Russian air force official as saying such flights were under discussion. But it was unclear whether they would involve permanent basing of nuclear bombers in Cuba, or just use of the island as a refueling stop.
In his confirmation hearing to become the air force's chief of staff, Schwartz was asked what he would recommend if Russia were to base nuclear capable bombers in Cuba.
"I would certainly offer the best military advice that we engage the Russians not to pursue that approach," he said, adding that Russia would cross a "red line" if it did.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on the Izvestia report because there had been no "official response from the Russian government."
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman responded to the report by saying, "That scenario is hypothetical and speculative at this point."
Conducting long-range bomber patrols to Cuba would signal a reawakening of military cooperation by former Cold War allies Moscow and Havana, and resurrects issues that first arose with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
The crisis, which brought Washington and Moscow to the brink of nuclear war, ended with an understanding that Moscow would remove its intermediate range missiles from Cuba and not introduce strategic systems in the island.
The Soviets tested the understanding in 1970 when the Soviets moved to establish a base for nuclear submarines in Cienfuegos, Cuba.
Moscow backed away from that plan, but began occasional flights by Tu-95 Bear reconnaissance aircraft from Murmansk to Cuba.
The United States never challenged the Bear flights because the aircraft were not bombers, according to histories of the period.
Another mini crisis erupted in 1979 with the discovery of two MiG-23 fighter squadrons in Cuba. Then president Jimmy Carter decided not to press the issue after concluding that the fighter-bombers were not configured to carry nuclear weapons.
Over the past year, Russia has revived long-range strategic bomber patrols in the Pacific and north Atlantic.
The Russian moves come amid rising tensions over the US missile defense plans, and warnings by Moscow that it will be forced to counter them militarily.
Until now, US officials have shrugged off the stepped up Russian military activity, while insisting that a radar in the Czech Republic and 10 missile interceptors it plans to install in Poland pose no threat to Russia.
White House press secretary Dana Perino recalled assurances US President George W. Bush offered Russian President Dmitry Medvedev two weeks ago at a G8 summit.
"The president repeated that our missile defense system should not be seen as a threat to Russia, we want to actually work with the Russians to design a system that Russia, and Europe and the United States could work on together as equal partners and we'll continue to do that," she said.
"We seek strategic cooperation with the Russians. We want to work with them on preventing missiles from rogue nations like Iran from threatening our friends and allies," said Perino.
But Medvedev has warned that the missile defense project worsens regional security and will force Moscow to consider counter-measures.
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