- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) - Russia’s defense minister on Tuesday accused the United States of beefing up its military presence near Russian borders and poaching for mineral wealth there, signaling that Moscow could take a tough position in upcoming talks with Barack Obama’s new administration.

Anatoly Serdyukov’s statement _ made alongside President Dmitry Medvedev at a meeting of the military’s top brass _ reflected deeply entrenched Russian suspicions despite Obama’s desire to improve relations with Moscow.

Medvedev, meanwhile, said that NATO expansion, along with international terrorism and local conflicts, meant upgrading the country’ nuclear forces was the top priority in an ambitious military modernization plan that he pledged to pursue despite the worst economic crisis in a decade.

Relations with Russia plunged to a post-Cold War low under the previous U.S. administration, whose plans to build missile defense sites in Eastern Europe and bring ex-Soviet republics into NATO angered Moscow.

Medvedev’s first meeting with Obama next month will set the tone for talks over a new arms control treaty and other major disputes between the Cold War rivals. But Russia is signaling that it will be a tough negotiating partner.

“U.S. aspirations have been aimed at getting access to raw materials, energy and other resources” of ex-Soviet nations, Serdyukov told military officers. “Active support was given to the processes aimed at pushing Russia out of the sphere of its traditional interests.”

Moscow has fiercely opposed plans to put Ukraine and Georgia on track to NATO membership. Russian officials have also hoped that the Obama administration would also cancel plans to deploy missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. Moscow has raised the stakes by threatening to deploy missiles next to Poland if the U.S. moves ahead with the missile shield.

Russia is also deeply wary of any U.S. presence in oil- and gas-rich Central Asia, which Moscow considers its historic sphere of influence.

Windfall oil wealth over the last decade allowed the Kremlin to nearly quadruple defense spending, start upgrading aging arsenals and press efforts to revive the nation’s clout and prestige. Still, military modernization has gone slowly and glaring weaknesses, such as shortages of precision “smart” weapons and modern communications gear, were highlighted during Russia’s war with Georgia in August.

The financial crisis has raised more doubts about meeting modernization goals, something Medvedev sought to dispel Tuesday.

“Let me mention the top priorities. The main one is a qualitative increase in the troops readiness, primarily of strategic nuclear forces. They must guarantee the fulfillment of all tasks of ensuring Russia’s security,” Medvedev said.

Military officials have said about 25 percent of the government’s 1.5 trillion rubles ($43 billion) budgeted for weapons purchases this year will be spent on upgrading the aging, Soviet-era nuclear force.

The military has said more than 10 new intercontinental ballistic missiles will go into service by year’s end _ a much faster pace of deployment than in previous years. It also intends to put the Bulava missile into service by January, despite several high-profile failures.

Col. Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, the chief of the Strategic Missile Forces, said that the first three RS-24, multi-warhead ballistic missiles will be deployed after Dec. 5 when the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, expires, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported Tuesday.

The new missile, which Solovtsov said would carry “at least four” nuclear warheads, would violate the landmark treaty.

Russian and U.S. officials are gearing up for negotiations on a successor pact to START, though no date talks have been announced. Many observers say the talks _ the first major arms-control talks in more than a decade _ will likely be very difficult.

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