- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2008

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday lashed out at the United States and NATO for igniting a “new arms race” and praised his country’s reviving fortunes at home and abroad in a wide-ranging valedictory address after eight years in office that Moscow wags dubbed “Putin’s will.”

With designated heir apparent Dmitry Medvedev and a sea of Kremlin power brokers filling the ornate St. George Hall, the Russian president delivered a 50-minute State of the Union-style address that mixed pugnacity toward the West with pride at Russia’s domestic successes and a laundry list of things still to be done.

“It is clear that a new arms race has been unleashed on the world,” Mr. Putin said. “It is not our fault, because we did not start it.”

He repeated old complaints that NATO took advantage of Moscow’s weakness in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union to expand the alliance to Russia’s borders and to boost spending on missile defense systems and other programs despite the end of the Cold War.

“We closed [Soviet-era] bases in Cuba and Vietnam. What did we get? New American bases in Romania, Bulgaria, a new third missile defense system in Poland,” Mr. Putin said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top U.S. officials insist the modest missile defense system being considered in Poland and the Czech Republic poses no threat to Russia’s vast missile arsenal — an argument the Kremlin has never accepted.

“We are categorically being told these actions aren’t directed at Russia, and therefore our concerns are unfounded,” Mr. Putin said. “That’s not a constructive response.”

But Mr. Putin insisted Russia would not be drawn into a new arms race and praised Russia’s revival since he took power from President Boris Yeltsin in January 2000.

“We have returned to the world arena as a state which is taken into consideration, a state that can stand up for itself,” he said.

Like President Bush, Mr. Putin is finishing up two momentous terms in office. Unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Putin is finishing his tenure on a high note, dominating public opinion polls and universally expected to play a major policy role even after the March 2 presidential vote.

Critics in Russia and abroad say that success has come at a price, with human rights and political freedoms suffering as Mr. Putin has centralized power in the Kremlin.

The Russian president devoted the bulk of his speech to Russia’s domestic situation, saying the country had achieved much but still had far to go.

Noting that economic growth last year was the highest in seven years and that Russia’s once-battered state coffers were now replenished, Mr. Putin said, “Today, we have already completely restored the state of socio-economic development we lost in the 1990s.”

But he noted that Russia still trailed far behind Western economies and that heavy reliance on natural resources — notably vast oil and natural gas deposits — had left the country with an “inertial scenario of development.”

“We are still modernizing our economy in a very fragmented way,” he said.

Without mentioning Mr. Medvedev once in his address, Mr. Putin said Russia must embark on a broad reform program over the next 12 years in education, in pensions, in taxes, wages and productivity.

Mr. Putin also cited mixed news on the demographic front.

He hailed new figures showing more babies were born in Russia in 2007 than at any year since 1991 — stemming a population decline that has long been a Putin priority.

But he noted that Russian health standards still lag far behind those of industrial countries.

“Today, every second man in Russia does not have the chance to live to be 60 years old,” he said. “That is shameful.”

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