Putin warns of nuclear 'strike force' if Russia shut out of missile shield
Kremlin seeks an equal role in Europe's defence
RUSSIAN Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said last night that Russia would deploy nuclear weapons and "strike forces" if it were shut out of a Western missile shield.
Mr Putin was wading in aggressively behind an earlier warning from President Dmitry Medvedev.
In an interview with Larry King recorded on Tuesday, Mr Putin said missile threats against Europe must be tackled jointly -- a reference to an agreement reached at a November 20 Russia-NATO summit to cooperate on missile defence, with Russia seeking an equal role.
If Russia's proposals are rejected and Western missile defence installations create "additional threats" near its borders, Russia would "put in place new strike forces. . . against the new threats which will have been created along our borders," he said. "New missile, nuclear technologies will be put in place," he added.
He claimed that Russia was not threatening the West, but the remarks underscored the Kremlin's insistence on maintaining a significant role in a missile defence system and suggested improving ties could sour again if agreement is not reached.
In his state of the nation address on Tuesday, Mr Medvedev warned that a new arms race would erupt if US and NATO offers of cooperation on missile defence failed to produce a concrete agreement within a decade.
"That's not our choice, we don't want that to happen. This is no threat on our part," Mr Putin said. "We've been simply saying that this is what all of us expect to happen if we don't agree on a joint effort there."
US plans for a missile shield have been a major irritant in its ties with Moscow since the Cold War. Now both Russia and the West are casting missile defence cooperation as a crucial ingredient in recipes to bring the former foes closer.
As part of a campaign to mend ties with Moscow, President Barack Obama last year scrapped Bush-era plans for a radar and interceptor missiles in eastern Europe that Russia said would be a major threat to its security. Russia has been far more accepting of Obama's revised blueprint, but Kremlin warnings come amid uncertainty over US Senate ratification of New START, a strategic nuclear arms limitation treaty signed by Mr Obama and Mr Medvedev in April and seen as the linchpin of improving relations.
Russia emphasises it could withdraw from New START if a US missile shield develops into a threat to its security.
Mr Putin's interview was conducted shortly after Mr Medvedev delivered his biggest annual address in the Kremlin, suggesting the former president has a strong hand on Russia's reins despite now holding No 2 office.
"I think he is underscoring for the West that he remains one of Russia's two leaders -- that he maintains serious reserves of power and would like to continue to take part in determining foreign policy," analyst Alexei Makarkin said.
US diplomatic cables revealed by the website WikiLeaks describe Mr Putin as Russia's "alpha-dog" ruler and Mr Medvedev as a sidekick, like "Robin to Putin's Batman".
In an excerpt from the interview, Mr Putin said the WikiLeaks scandal was "no catastrophe" and that some experts believe it could have been engineered for "political purposes."
Responding to a leaked cable citing US Defence Secretary Robert Gates as portraying Russia as undemocratic, Mr Putin said Mr Gates was "deeply misled".
He added that when Russia raised shortcomings in US democracy, it was told not to interfere. "I would also like to advise you, don't interfere either (with) the sovereign choice of the Russian people," he said.