Wednesday, November 17, 2004

MOSCOW — Russia is developing a nuclear-missile system that is unlike any weapon held by other countries, President Vladimir Putin said yesterday, a move that could serve as a signal to the United States as Washington pushes forward with its missile-defense system.

Mr. Putin gave no details about the system or why Russia was pursuing it, and it was not clear whether the Kremlin’s cash-strapped armed forces could afford an expensive new weapon.

But in remarks possibly meant for a domestic audience, he said at a meeting of the top leadership of the armed forces that the system could be deployed soon, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

“We are not only conducting research and successful tests on state-of-the-art nuclear-missile systems, but I am convinced that these systems will appear in the near future,” Mr. Putin said. “Moreover, they will be systems, weapons that not a single other nuclear power has, or will have, in the near future.”

ITAR-Tass indicated that the new system could be a mobile version of the Topol-M ballistic missiles, which have been deployed in silos since 1998. But Alexander Pikayev, a senior military analyst with Moscow’s Institute for Global Economics and International Relations, said Mr. Putin seemed to be referring to the Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile, a solid-fuel missile that had its first test in September.

“Putin apparently wanted to boast the success of his military reform effort … to both the military and the broad public,” Mr. Pikayev said. “His statement also intended to show that Russia is regaining its status as a great power which can’t be ignored.”

Russian officials had stated earlier that the Bulava could be developed in both sea- and land-based versions and equipped with warheads capable of penetrating a missile defense, Mr. Pikayev said.

He said if the Bulava proves capable, it would represent a major success because it would show that Russia has succeeded in modernizing its missile forces despite the shortage of funds.

“It will ring the bell for the Americans, forcing Washington to reassess its estimates,” Mr. Pikayev said.

A U.S. official in Washington told The Washington Times that the Russians have been working to develop “higher-precision, lower-yield weapons” since the late 1990s.

The new missile is likely to be the Bulava, the official said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Mr. Putin’s announcement wasn’t news to the Bush administration, and that President Bush and Mr. Putin had discussed the issue previously. He emphasized there were agreements in place to reduce the two countries’ nuclear arsenals and noted that Moscow is now a partner in the war on terrorism.

“This is not something that we look at as new,” he said. “We are very well-aware of their long-standing modernization efforts for their military. … We are allies now in the global war on terrorism.”

Staff reporter Bill Gertz contributed to this article from Washington.

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