MOSCOW  — Amid the widening U.S.-Russian spat over Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday issued a strongly-worded statement accusing the Pentagon of nurturing an aggressive nuclear strategy threatening Russia.

The ministry cast a recent speech by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter as a veiled threat to back a hypothetical attack on Russia by its allies in Europe with U.S. nuclear weapons. The angry statement reflects a growing degree of mistrust and tensions between Moscow and Washington after the collapse of a U.S.-Russian cease-fire deal in Syria.

On Monday, Carter accused Russia of "nuclear saber-rattling" and argued that even though the Cold War is long over, nuclear weapons are still needed to deter Russia and other potential aggressors from thinking they could get away with a nuclear attack.

"Across the Atlantic, we're refreshing NATO's nuclear playbook — to better integrate conventional and nuclear deterrence, to ensure we plan and train like we'd fight, and to deter Russia from thinking it can benefit from nuclear use in a conflict with NATO," Carter said. He emphasized that "obviously, we do not seek such a conflict to begin with, rather, we seek to prevent one."

The Russian Foreign Ministry, however, interpreted Carter's statement as a declared intention to lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons.

"Carter's statement means that if Russia comes under attack from U.S. allies, the Americans will be ready to back it and threaten to use their nuclear weapons against us," it said in a statement. "We would like to think that Washington understands the meaning of such statements and their possible consequences for international security and stability."

The ministry noted that the current Russian military doctrine envisages the use of nuclear weapons to fend off an attack with conventional forces that threaten Russia's very existence as a state. It accused Carter of trying to distort the document's meaning in order to cast Moscow as a potential aggressor.

"Such flagrant misinterpretation of the official Russian document means that the secretary either has used a bad translation or is plotting a dangerous game," it said.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter greets airmen at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, after giving a speech on nuclear weapons. Carter says the Pentagon is committed to correcting what he calls decades of shortchanging its nuclear forces. Carter spoke Monday at a nuclear missile and bomber base in Minot. He says $108 billion is earmarked for sustaining and improving the forces over the next five years.

Photo Credit: Robert Burns/AP

As Russia-U.S. relations have sunk to the lowest levels since the Cold War times over the Ukrainian crisis, Moscow has angrily protested the deployment of NATO forces to the alliance's members that border Russia and the development of NATO's U.S.-led missile defense in Europe. Sharp differences over Syria have added to the bad blood.

"We note that the Pentagon chief's belligerent rhetoric helps to a large extent clarify the real goals behind the ongoing modernization of the U.S. nuclear weapons," the Russian Foreign Ministry said. "The strategy of pressuring Russia by force, which in the logic of its Pentagon 'planners' apparently means nuclear brinkmanship, will receive a more sophisticated and dangerous military-technical foundation."

The ministry added that "it looks particularly cynical as all of it is being done by the administration of Barack Obama, the president who has declared the U.S. striving for nuclear disarmament and won the Nobel Peace Prize for that in advance."

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