BRUSSELS — The US ambassador to NATO set off alarm bells Tuesday when she suggested that the United States might ‘‘take out’’ Russian missiles that US officials say violate a landmark arms control treaty.
Although Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison’s comments were somewhat ambiguous, arms control experts said they could be interpreted to mean a preemptive strike against Russian missiles. Such a move could lead to nuclear war.
An official familiar with Hutchison’s thinking later said she did not mean a preemptive strike. Still, the comments drew a furious response from the Russian Foreign Ministry.
‘‘The impression is that people making such claims are unaware of the degree of their responsibility and the danger of aggressive rhetoric,’’ Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters, the Interfax news agency reported. ‘‘Who authorized this dame to make such allegations? 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?’’
Asked during a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels what the United States might do about a new class of Russian missiles that appear to violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Hutchinson said, ‘‘The countermeasures would be to take out the missiles that are in development by Russia in violation of the treaty.’’
It was unclear whether she meant that the United States would target Russia’s banned missile installations in the event that Moscow doesn’t come back into compliance with the treaty, or whether she was warning that the United States would enhance its missile defenses to take out any banned missiles Russia decides to launch at US or allied targets. The United States currently has limited ability to defend targets against cruise missile threats.
‘‘The question was what would you do if this continues to a point where we know that they are capable of delivering’’ the banned missiles, Hutchison said. ‘‘And at that point 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.’’
The treaty, which the United States and the Soviet Union signed in 1987, prohibits the production and deployment of nuclear and conventional missiles that fly from 500 to 5,500 kilometers. It applies to ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles.
Neither the Pentagon nor the State Department responded to a request for comment. NATO defense ministers plan to address the alleged Russian violations at a Brussels meeting on Wednesday and Thursday.
Hutchison, a former Republican senator from Texas, has been President Trump’s ambassador to NATO for just over a year.
‘‘She does threaten preemption. She just didn’t mean it,’’ said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.