MOSCOW — The United States has effectively canceled the final phase of a Europe-based missile defense system that was fiercely opposed by Russia and cited repeatedly by the Kremlin as a major obstacle to cooperation on nuclear arms reductions and other issues.
Russian officials have so far declined to comment on the announcement, which was made Friday in Washington by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel as part of a plan to deploy additional ballistic missile interceptors to counter North Korea. Much of the savings from canceling the extra Europe-based defenses will help fund those added interceptors.
Aides to President Vladimir Putin said there would be no reaction until early this week, when they expect to be briefed by American officials.
But Russian news accounts quickly raised the possibility that the decision could portend a breakthrough in what has been a largely intractable dispute between Russia and the United States for years. A headline by the Itar-Tass news agency declared, "U.S. abandons fourth phase of European missile defense system that causes the greatest objections from Russia."
Pentagon officials said those long-standing objections by Russia played no role in the decision to reconfigure the missile interceptor program, which they said was based on the increased threat from North Korea, and on technological difficulties and budget considerations.
Still, other Obama administration officials acknowledged potential benefits if the decision is well-received in Moscow, as well as the possibility of continued objections given that the United States is not backing away from its core plan for a land-based missile shield program in Central Europe.
Regardless, some experts said it could help relations by eliminating what the Russians had cited as one of their main objections — the interceptors in the final phase of the missile shield that might have the ability to target long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are part of Russian's nuclear arsenal.
In Washington, many officials have said they believe Russia's real objections were not only about the capabilities of the missile shield but also about a more general political and strategic opposition to an expanding U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe. Canceling only the final stage of the program does not address that concern, so it is possible Russia's position will remain unchanged.
At least some of the canceled interceptors were to have been based in Poland. Reaction from Warsaw has been more muted.