MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s military will add over 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles this year alone that are capable of piercing any missile defenses, President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday in a blunt reminder of the nation’s nuclear might amid tensions with the West over Ukraine.
Putin spoke at the opening of an arms show at a shooting range in Alabino just west of Moscow, a huge display intended to showcase Russia’s resurgent military.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg accused the Russians of “nuclear saber-rattling,” and said that was one of the reasons the western military alliance has been beefing up its ability to defend its members.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, briefing reporters via teleconference from Boston, where he is recovering from surgery on a broken leg, called Putin’s announcement concerning.
“We’re trying to move in the opposite direction,” Kerry said. “We have had enormous cooperation from the 1990s forward with respect to the structure of nuclear weapons in the former territories of the Soviet Union. And no one wants to see us step backwards.”
He said Putin could be posturing.
“It’s really hard to tell,” Kerry said. “But nobody should hear that kind of an announcement from the leader of a powerful country and not be concerned about the implications.”
Russia-West relations have plunged to their lowest point since Cold War times over Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for a pro-Russia separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The U.S. and the EU have slapped Russia with economic sanctions, and Washington and its NATO allies have pondered an array of measures in response to Russia’s moves.
The three Baltic members of the alliance, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have asked NATO to permanently deploy ground troops to their nations as a deterrent against an increasingly assertive Russia. And Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak says he and U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter have held talks about placing U.S. heavy army equipment in Poland.
The NATO chief said he expected Carter to brief other alliance members on the proposal to stockpile tanks and other weapons and supplies in Eastern Europe during a NATO defense ministers meeting next week.
“I welcome all efforts to defend and protect allies,” Stoltenberg said in Brussels.
Moscow bristled at the plans, warning Washington that the deployment of new U.S. weapons near Russian borders would foment dangerous instability in Europe.
“The United States is inciting tensions and carefully nurturing their European allies’ anti-Russian phobias in order to use the current difficult situation for further expanding its military presence and influence in Europe,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
“We hope that reason will prevail and it will be possible to save the situation in Europe from sliding toward a military standoff, which could entail dangerous consequences,” the ministry added.
The NATO chief said the alliance had to respond to Russia’s actions by “increasing the readiness and the preparedness of our forces.”
“We are responding by making sure that NATO also in the future is an alliance which provides deterrence and protection for all allies against any threat,” Stoltenberg said.
In his speech at the arms show, Putin vowed to continue a big arms modernization program despite the nation’s economic downturn. He specifically mentioned the Armata tanks and other new armored vehicles, which were first shown to the public during a Red Square military parade last month.
The Russian leader also noted the military was to start testing its new long-range early warning radar intended to monitor the western border and later will deploy another one in the east.
“Over 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of penetrating any, even the most technologically advanced missile defense systems, will join the nuclear forces in the current year,” he said.
Last year, the military received 38 ICBMs, according to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Modernizing the nation’s nuclear forces is a top priority for the military, which needs to gradually decommission its aging Soviet-built ICBMs.
Stoltenberg described the Russian arms buildup as destabilizing.
“They are developing new nuclear capabilities and they are also using nuclear rhetoric more in the way they are messaging their defense strategy and defense posture,” Stoltenberg said. “This nuclear saber-rattling of Russia is unjustified. It’s destabilizing and it’s dangerous.”
Putin said the re-armament program should help encourage the nation’s economic growth and spearhead innovations. Independent experts warn, however, that a weapons upgrade that envisages spending 22 trillion rubles (over $400 billion) on new weapons through 2020 would be an unbearable burden now when the Russian economy has plunged into recession.
Despite the gloomy economic outlook, Russian arms makers used the arms show to publicize costly new weapons that even the Soviet Union couldn’t afford.
The navy revealed a project of an aircraft carrier capable of carrying 90 aircraft. It also showed a mock-up of a new amphibious landing ship, a vessel similar to the Mistral-class ship built on Russian orders in France, whose delivery has been suspended over the Ukrainian crisis.
Amid the current spike in Russia-West tensions, Washington accused Moscow of violating its obligations under a landmark nuclear arms control treaty by flight-testing a ground-launched cruise missile with a range prohibited by the treaty. Russia rejected the accusations, and, in its turn, alleged that some elements of the U.S. missile defense shield violate the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces, or INF, treaty.
The RIA Novosti news agency on Tuesday quoted Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying that Moscow is ready to hold consultations to discuss the mutual complaints.
John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.
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