Putin says Russia will target US if it puts missiles in Europe

MOSCOW (BLOOMBERG) – President Vladimir Putin signalled Russia will aim new weapons at the US if it stations missiles in Europe after quitting a landmark Cold-War-era treaty, amid growing fears of a new arms race. 

Still, the tone of Putin’s annual state-of-the-nation speech was less belligerent than a year ago, when he showed computer-graphics demonstrations of a series of new missiles and other high-tech weapons that appeared to target the US.

With its only graphic displays focused on economics, this year’s address was devoted primarily to pledges to improve living standards and boost welfare benefits. 

Russia doesn’t plan to deploy missiles banned by the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty that the US has said it plans to abandon, Putin said. But if the US does, “Russia will be forced to produce and deploy weapons that can be used not only against the territories from which we face this direct threat but also those where the decision is made to use these missiles,” he said, eliciting applause from the hundreds of officials gathered in the hall near the Kremlin. 

The US and its allies are laying the groundwork to deploy new intermediate-range missiles in Europe for the first time since they were banned by the treaty. With a second pact covering nuclear weapons likely to expire in two years, the risks of confrontation are growing.  

Putin blasted the US for ignoring Russia’s interests, saying officials in Washington should “count the range and speed of our future weapons systems.”

He said many of the weapons he displayed last year will soon be deployed, including a hypersonic glider that could carry nuclear weapons and evade US missile defences, a laser cannon and an underwater drone called Poseidon. 

His warnings came at the end of a speech that focused mainly on a pledge to deliver improvements in living standards in 2019, after years of stagnant or falling real incomes that have sharply dented his popularity. 

“Already this year people should feel changes for the better,” Putin said. “We can’t repeat the mistakes of the past decades and wait for the achievement of Communism,” he said, referring to Soviet promises of an ideal society that never materialised in 70 years of one-party rule. 

The Russian leader, who won a new six-year term in 2018, has been feeling the heat domestically, with popular dissatisfaction at the erosion in living standards heightened by decisions to raise the retirement age and increase the value-added tax. 

Patriotic fervor that bolstered Putin after the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 has dissipated. His electoral rating is now at the lowest level in six years according to the Public Opinion Foundation pollster, while public trust in him as a leader is at the worst in more than a decade, according to the state-run VTsIOM research organisation. 

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