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Russia’s Putin talks tough on U.S. missile shield

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called Tuesday for the development of new offensive weapons systems to “preserve a strategic balance” with the United States.

The Russian leader also demanded that Washington disclose more details of its planned missile defense deployments and technology. Putin warned that a powerful missile shield, which has long irritated a nervous Kremlin, could make the United States feel safe enough to become more aggressive in its dealings with the rest of the world.

“What preserved peace, even in Cold War conditions, was a balance of forces,” Putin said.

The provocative comments from the man widely regarded as Russia’s most powerful leader were emblematic of lingering fears and clashing world views as U.S. and Russian negotiators struggle to finalize a long-anticipated deal to cut nuclear stockpiles.

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The nuclear deal, agreed upon in broad terms in April, has been trumpeted as the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s drive to salvage a badly dented relationship with Moscow. President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to cut their respective nuclear arsenals by as much as a third.

Despite vague but encouraging statements from officials on both sides, however, a final agreement remains elusive. The details weren’t finalized by the time the previous Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expired in early December. Nor do negotiators appear ready to finish the deal by year’s end, as once expected. They packed up and went home the weekend before Christmas.

Nevertheless, American officials said Tuesday that they were unfazed by Putin’s comments.

“We have made substantial progress in the negotiations and remain confident that when talks resume in January that we’ll be able to finalize an agreement,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the talks.

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That confidence echoes the tone of Russian officials such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who last week said the talks were “in the homestretch.” Earlier in the month, Lavrov had complained that the Americans were slowing down the negotiations.

The talks snagged on a smattering of disagreements over U.S. plans for missile defense and the mechanisms for verifying the destruction of nuclear arms.

On Tuesday, Putin was perhaps most damning in the dismissive tone he took toward the hard-chased agreement.

“You know, some think that [the treaty] is not needed at all,” he said. “Some think it is.”

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While brushing aside the question of agreed nuclear regulations (“their presence is better than their absence”), Putin described the two countries as still needing to arm themselves in response to each other.

Russia has been deeply worried about U.S. missile-shield plans. Moscow has no plans to build -- and says it can’t afford to develop -- a similar defensive system. The U.S. has shrugged off Russia’s demand that negotiations on the defensive systems be lumped in with the arms reductions.

A U.S. decision to scrap planned interceptors and a radar base in Poland and the Czech Republic was widely seen as a concession to Russia’s fiery objections to having the defense equipment positioned so close to its border. But Moscow showed little sign of being mollified. Russian leaders have been pressing ever since for information on what the U.S. will deploy instead.

Besides the fear of being challenged in what has long been Moscow’s sphere of influence, the Kremlin is worried that U.S. missile defense may eventually become strong enough to neutralize Russia’s nuclear arsenal. That would be a hard blow for a country that still dreams of recovering its superpower status despite the relative weakness of its conventional armed forces.

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“A danger is created here that, having built up an umbrella against our offensive weapons systems, our partner may start feeling completely safe,” Putin said. “The balance will be damaged, and then they will be doing what they want, and aggressiveness will immediately be stepped up in real politics and in the economy.”

By adding his warnings to the mix, Putin deepens the impression that he still enjoys de facto veto power over strategic matters, despite the fact that military and foreign affairs should fall to Medvedev.

Putin tapped Medvedev, his longtime underling, to succeed him as president when term limits forced Putin to relinquish Russia’s top post. Now perched in the prime minister’s office, Putin is still widely seen as the driving force in the Russian government. His return to the presidency is anticipated by many observers.

megan.stack@latimes.com

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Paul Richter in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.


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