Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, gestures while speaking at the VTB Capital Investment Forum in Moscow, Russia. (Photographer: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/Bloomberg)

Putin Says Russia to Target U.S. If Missiles Put in Europe

(Bloomberg) -- President Vladimir Putin signaled Russia will aim new weapons at the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. has pulled out of, Putin said. But if the U.S. 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.

Russia’s nuclear targets already include command-and-control facilities in the U.S., so “there’s no new threat here,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat and foreign policy analyst in Moscow. As far as missiles aimed at Europe, “Putin reiterated Russia’s not-to-be-first-to-deploy position, which is unilateral restraint.”

While Washington says it won’t deploy new land-based nuclear weapons in Europe, the U.S. and its allies are laying the groundwork to deploy new intermediate-range conventional missiles there 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.

‘Oinking Along’

Putin warned that any new weapons Russia would deploy would match the short flight times -- in some cases only 10-12 minutes -- as U.S. missiles stationed in Europe. Officials in Washington should “calculate the range and speed of our future weapons systems,” he warned.

Putin didn’t elaborate on how Russia would achieve that without bases close to U.S. borders, as the Soviet Union had in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when Moscow moved to deploy its launchers on the island. Strikes launched from submarines and planned hypersonic weapons could shorten the flight time of Russian forces.

The Russian leader blasted U.S. allies in Europe as “satellites” who were “oinking along with” Washington’s position on pulling out of the INF treaty. The accord banned any land-based missiles from Europe with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, whether nuclear or conventional.

Putin said many of the weapons he displayed last year will soon come into service, including a hypersonic glider launched from missiles that could carry nuclear weapons and evade U.S. missile defenses, a laser cannon and an underwater drone called Poseidon. Putin and his defense minister pledged that Russia won’t need to increase military spending to pay for this build-up.

“I don’t think this signals some change in policy, it’s just a recognition that there’s nothing that can be done” to improve relations, said Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow-based research group. “There’s a certain sense of impending doom.”

Living Standards

Putin’s 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,” the president 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 materialized in 70 years of one-party rule.

Putin Says Russia to Target U.S. If Missiles Put in Europe

Putin, 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.

Reinforcing the gloomy picture, Economy Minister Maxim Oreshkin said that the economy grew at an annual rate of just 0.7 percent in January, Interfax reported.

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 organization.

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