Putin, in Speech, Accuses U.S. of Setting Off 'New Arms Race'

Putin, soon to leave office, offered a list of achievements.
Putin, soon to leave office, offered a list of achievements. (Vladimir Rodionov - AP)
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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 9, 2008

MOSCOW, Feb. 8 -- President Vladimir Putin said Friday that "a new arms race has been unleashed in the world" as the United States moves forward with a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Russia will field new weapons in response, he said, dismissing American assurances that the missile system is not directed against Russia as merely "diplomatic cover."

"It's not our fault. We didn't start it . . . funneling multibillions of dollars into developing weapons systems," Putin declared in what may be his final major address before he leaves the Kremlin after presidential elections March 2 to become prime minister.

"Russia has and always will have a response to these new challenges," Putin declared. "Over the next few years, Russia will start production of new types of arms, with the same or even superior specifications compared to those available to other nations."

He said, however, that military spending should not come at the cost of the country's economic and social development.

Putin was addressing Russia's State Council, a gathering of ministers, regional governors and members of parliaments. Among those watching in the chandeliered St. George's Hall was Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's chosen successor, who is expected to coast to victory in next month's vote. His most vocal opponent, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, has been barred from running.

Medvedev has struck a milder tone than his boss in recent speeches and has avoided rhetorical assaults on the West. He cut some anti-Western flourishes from a recent speech prepared by his staff, according to a report in Newsweek's Russian edition.

But Putin's swan song was in keeping with the president's increasingly harsh tone over the past couple of years as Russia and the West clashed over a host of issues, including the future status of Kosovo and Russia's democratic development.

Friday's uncompromising words sounded the now familiar theme that the West, resentful of Russia's resurgence under Putin's stewardship, is encircling the country by bringing neighbors into the NATO alliance and attempting to subvert it internally by funding opponents of the Kremlin. And although the West speaks of freedom and democracy, Putin said, its real agenda is to gain access to the natural resources that "God has graced us with."

"Thus, many conflicts, foreign policy actions and diplomatic protests reek of oil and gas," he said.

Among Russia's neighbors, Ukraine and Georgia are seeking membership in NATO. The three Baltic republics that were part of the Soviet Union are already in the alliance, as are many formerly communist countries in Eastern Europe.

"We drew down our bases in Cuba and in Vietnam. What did we get?" Putin said. "New American bases in Romania, Bulgaria. A new third missile defense region in Poland.

"We are categorically being told these actions aren't directed at Russia and therefore our concerns are completely unfounded," he continued. "That's not a constructive response."

Putin said that "irresponsible demagogy, attempts to split society and to use foreign assistance and interference in the course of political struggle in Russia are not only immoral, but also illegal."

The speech, which was punctuated by frequent applause, also enumerated what Putin saw as his achievements.

"We have returned to the world arena as a state which is taken account of and which can stand up for itself," he said.

Turning to the country's domestic development, he contrasted Russia's current stability and economic growth with what the Kremlin frequently describes as the chaos of the 1990s under President Boris Yeltsin.

"We have managed to rid the country of the vicious practice of government decisions made under pressure from raw materials and financial monopolies, media moguls, foreign political circles and brazen populists that cynically ignored not only national interests but the basic needs of millions of people," Putin said. "First of all, we started restoring the constitutional order, reviving basic social guarantees to individuals and strengthening government institutions."

Putin noted proudly that Russia has joined "the ranks of the seven biggest economies in the world." But he said the country needs to diversify and no longer depend on sales of oil and other natural resources to fuel its growth.

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