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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Defiant Putin warns US with display of new weapons

The unusual display of military might was the most dramatic element of the Russian president’s speech

A test launch of a nuclear-powered cruise missile demonstrated on displays during Russian president Vladimir Putin's address to the federal assembly. EPA/KREMLIN
A test launch of a nuclear-powered cruise missile demonstrated on displays during Russian president Vladimir Putin's address to the federal assembly. EPA/KREMLIN

Vladimir Putin used his state-of-the-nation speech to deliver a stern warning to the US that Russia has a series of new high-technology nuclear weapons that he said can overcome any defenses.

“Efforts to contain Russia have failed, face it,” Mr Putin said in a nearly two-hour address he illustrated with video clips of the new arms, which included underwater drones, intercontinental missiles and a hypersonic system he said “heads for its target like a meteorite.”

The unusual display of military might was the most dramatic element of the speech, which started with pledges to deliver a “decisive breakthrough” to boost living standards and raise spending on health and infrastructure. Mr Putin used the annual address to lay out priorities for the fourth presidential term he’s expected to win easily in the March 18 election. But the toughest language was aimed at the US

He said Russia had long warned Washington not to go ahead with anti-missile systems that Moscow feared could erode its nuclear deterrent. “Nobody listened to us. Listen now,” he said, to a loud ovation from the crowd of legislators, officials and dignitaries.

“We’re not threatening anyone,” Mr Putin said of the new weapons. “Russia’s growing military might is a reliable guarantee of peace on our planet because it ensures the strategic balance in the world.”

He singled out a new US nuclear-strategy document as threatening to lower the threshold for using the weapons. He warned that any use of nuclear arms against Russia or its allies would meet an “immediate response.”

Asked about the speech, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the Trump administration’s plans to spend more than $700 billion on defence in the next fiscal year are sufficient to deter any threat from Moscow.

“President Putin has confirmed what the United States government has known all along, which Russia has denied,” Ms Sanders told reporters Thursday. “Russia’s been developing destabilising weapons systems for over a decade, in direct violations of its treaty obligations. President Trump understands the threats facing America and our allies in this century and is determined to protect our homeland and preserve peace through strength.”

While Mr nPutin’s past addresses had been staid affairs held in the Kremlin’s ornate Georgievsky Hall, this year’s was moved to the Manezh exhibition venue nearby to allow him to show the videos and animated charts on a giant screen behind him.

The new weapons were shown in computerised animations evading defences as they headed toward targets, sometimes appearing to be in North America. Some Russian media later pointed out that part of the animation appeared identical to footage of a missile attack that was shown on state television in 2007.

Among the systems Mr Putin announced was a nuclear-powered cruise missile that he said had “unlimited range” and could dodge defences. Underwater drones launched from submarines were shown striking ships and coastal cities, while a new hypersonic missile called “dagger” destroyed a military installation and a new laser weapon was shown preparing for operation. As he catalogued the systems – all of which he said had been developed since the collapse of the Soviet Union – he announced an online contest to name some of the newer ones.

“Giving half the time in the annual address to the Russian parliament to a graphic description of new weapons’ capabilities is a measure of how close the US and Russia have moved toward military collision,” Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter. “For the foreseeable future, it looks that the US-Russia agenda will be limited to just one item: war prevention. Good luck to us all.”

Thursday’s address was Putin’s first major policy statement since he formally kicked off his campaign for the presidential elections. Putin, 65, is all but certain to win re-election for a fourth and likely final term to extend his rule to 2024. With factions jostling for advantage over the succession, his biggest challenge will be to build a team and a system capable of sustaining Putinism after he leaves office.

While his approval ratings have remained consistently above 80 percent since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, public discontent is rising amid weak economic growth that’s followed the longest recession this century. Many of his promises from his last campaign have remained unfulfilled amid the weak economic performance. Deepening tensions with the West threaten to further isolate the Kremlin.

Mr Putin addressed domestic issues head on in the speech, pledging to halve the 20-million-strong ranks of Russia’s poor by the middle of the next decade and boost incomes across the country. He called for raising spending on roads, health care, pensions, and efforts to reverse the decline in Russia’s population. He also called for making “hard decisions” on long-overdue reforms, but didn’t spell them out.

“We need to make a decisive breakthrough in the prosperity of our citizens,” he said. “Falling behind is the main threat, that’s our enemy,” he added, targeting a 50 percent increase in per capita gross domestic product by the middle of the next decade.

Mr Putin had cut back his public campaign appearances in the last two weeks as a result of what the Kremlin said was a cold. Thursday, he sounded hoarse and coughed as he spoke. He’s expected to appear at a major rally of supporters in a Moscow stadium Saturday.