Thursday, May 11, 2006

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin warned yesterday that the U.S.-Russian arms race is not over and called for a strengthening of his nation’s nuclear and conventional forces so Moscow can better resist foreign pressure.

The remarks, in his seventh state of the nation address since taking power in 2000, follow increasingly sharp criticism of Russia’s democratic and foreign policy directions from the United States, including a harsh rebuke by Vice President Dick Cheney last week in Lithuania.

“It is premature to speak of the end of the arms race,” said Mr. Putin, who pointed out in the nationally televised address that U.S. defense spending is 25 times higher than Russia’s and said his country needs to catch up.

“Their house is their fortress? Well done,” he said. “But it means that we must build our house strongly, reliably, because we see what is going on in the world.

“We must always be ready to counter any attempts to pressure Russia in order to strengthen positions at our expense,” he continued. “The stronger our military is, the less temptation there will be to exert such pressure on us.”

Mr. Putin said Russia’s military would work to strengthen both its nuclear deterrent and its conventional forces but without repeating “the mistakes of the Soviet Union and of the Cold War” by draining the country’s resources.

Many analysts attribute the collapse of communism in Russia to the Kremlin’s inability to keep up with U.S. arms spending during the Reagan administration, particularly its space-based anti-missile initiative known familiarly as “Star Wars.”

Skyrocketing world energy prices have provided oil-rich Russia with windfall surpluses that could be used to fund at least a modest defense buildup. Russian revenues totaled $41.8 billion compared with expenditures of $25.5 billion in the first two months of this year, the Novosti news agency reported.

Mr. Putin said his government would soon commission two nuclear submarines equipped with the first new intercontinental ballistic missiles developed in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union and that land-based strategic forces soon would get their first unit of mobile Topol-M missiles.

He said the new missiles and warheads would be able to change direction in flight, foiling advanced defense systems such as the one being developed by the United States.

In the hourlong speech, which focused largely on domestic problems, Mr. Putin also responded to the wave of criticism from the United States, which questioned Moscow’s fitness to serve as president of the Group of Eight industrialized nations this year after it cut off gas deliveries to Europe in a midwinter pricing dispute with Ukraine.

FBI officials say they have seen a sharp increase in Russian civilian and military intelligence gathering activities in the United States, much of it directed at stealing weapons-related technology.

“The Russians are spying at Cold War levels,” one official said.

Mr. Cheney went further during a visit to the Lithuanian capital last week, accusing Moscow of backsliding on democracy and using its vast energy resources as a tool for “intimidation and blackmail” against its neighbors.

“Where does the whole pathos about the need to struggle for democracy and human rights disappear to, when the talk is of ensuring one’s own interests?” Mr. Putin asked rhetorically in an apparent reference to U.S. actions in the war on terrorism, including the indefinite detention of suspects without trial.

“Then it seems everything is possible. There are no limits at all,” he said. Invoking a Russian proverb, he added: “As the saying goes, comrade wolf knows whom to eat, and he eats without listening to others.”

In an apparent reference to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Mr. Putin said Russia stood “unambiguously” for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. However, he also said: “Methods of force rarely give the desired result, and often their consequences are even more terrible than the original threat.”

Analysts saw the speech as a signal to the West that Russia would not back down from promoting its interests abroad.

“What we saw was a declaration that Russia is coming back as a global power and will pursue an aggressive foreign policy,” said Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center. “And while he only mentioned the United States a couple of times, it was clear that Putin sees the U.S. as his major opponent.”

Mr. Putin did seek to reassure Western markets of Russia’s reliability as an energy supplier, saying, “We must do everything not only for our domestic development, but also to fully meet our obligations before our traditional partners.”

• Bill Gertz contributed to this report from Washington.

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