Putin accuses West of starting new arms race

"We are being forced to take retaliatory steps," says Russian president on US plans for new bases and missile defense sites in Central, E. Europe.

putin 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
putin 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin lambasted the West for its military expansion toward Russia's borders and laid out an ambitious agenda for his successor to restore the country's economic and military clout in a farewell address Friday as he prepared to step aside as president. With less than a month remaining before the election, Putin's speech before dozens of top government officials, cultural figures, religious leaders and military officers served as a report card on his own achievements and a reminder of his wide popularity among Russians. It was also a signal that "Putinism" - a doctrine of assertive economic and military policies and unwavering centralized power - should be expected to continue under the man he has tapped to succeed him: First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. "What I'm saying now is not just being said on the eve of the election. This isn't a campaign slogan. This is of vital necessity for the improvement of the country," he told the audience gathered in an ornate Kremlin palace ballroom. Medvedev, with Putin's endorsement, is expected to win the March 2 vote easily, and he has indicated that if he becomes president, he will name Putin as his prime minister. With the audience interrupting him with applause nearly two dozen times during the more than 45-minute, nationally televised address, Putin again lashed out at "foreign interference" in Russia's internal affairs - a warning aimed at building criticism in the West about how free and fair the March vote will be. On Thursday, an authoritative international group said it would not send observers to monitor the vote. "Attempts of foreign interference in the course of the political battles within Russia are not only immoral, but also illegal," Putin said. Speaking forcefully at times and gesturing with his fists, he listed the successes of his tenure, noting the country's rising birth rate and growth of the middle class. He asserted that the rule of law had been restored after what he described as the chaotic years of the 1990s. "One can say with confidence now that political lawlessness for the people of Russia has ended," he said. And he returned to the issue that helped propel him to the presidency - terrorism in the North Caucasus and his decision in 1999, as prime minister, to order federal forces back into Chechnya, sparking the second war to ravage the region in less than a decade. He said Chechnya is on the road to recovery, and he warned of the danger in allowing separatist movements to develop. "If we were to ever allow ourselves in the future to fall into this sort of partition, it would be endless and it would destroy the country," he said. As he has in the past, Putin criticized the expansion of NATO and said Moscow would respond by modernizing its military and weapons systems. He said the West had failed to respond to Moscow's security concerns, and referred to US plans to deploy missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic and new military bases in Romania and Bulgaria. "We are being forced to take retaliatory steps," he said. "Russia has and always will have a response to these new challenges." He accused Washington of stonewalling Russia over its concerns about the new military sites, saying that it used consultations with Russia as "merely as information and diplomatic cover for implementing their plans." And he warned that a new arms race was underway. "It is not our fault because we did not start it," he said. NATO defense ministers, meeting Friday in Vilnius, Lithuania, said there was no need for such harsh rhetoric. "We have all the avenues and channels to talk in a productive and friendly way and we should take advantage of those and not engage in unnecessarily heated rhetoric," said NATO spokesman James Appathurai. "I don't think it's fair to say we don't hear Russian concerns, and I might add that NATO countries want as much as possible to meet those concerns but we have to of course take into account the interest and security of NATO countries as well," the spokesman said. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Friday that he had not seen Putin's comments. But he said US missile defense would be the "antithesis" of past arms buildups. "It's a small and limited system, defensive in nature, and poses absolutely no threat to Russia's strategic interests," he told reporters. Asked if the US would object to Russia developing its missile defense systems, Casey said, "I would think that any defensive systems of any kind that would protect the lives of civilian populations anywhere in the world would be a good thing." Putin also laid out a plan for the development of the country in the next 12 years, an effort analysts said was essentially marching orders for Medvedev when he becomes president. He said Russia's economy was "extremely inefficient" and had harsh words for the country's bloated bureaucracy, which "significantly blocks and discourages the development of the country." The country should do more to encourage innovation and develop value-added manufacturing instead of relying solely on exports of its abundant natural resources, he said. Putin also warned that foreigners were increasingly trying to take control of those resources. "God has not begrudged us our natural resources. As a result, we are increasingly colliding with recidivist politics of containment. ... We are frequently pressed with dishonest competition to guarantee access to our resources," he said. Flashing some of his sometimes bawdy wit, he spoke about how difficult it is to set up a small business in Russia and how entrepreneurs face red tape and graft. "You have to go with a bribe to every agency: to the firefighters, to the sanitary inspectors, to the gynecologists," he said to laughter from the otherwise staid audience. "Is there anyone you don't need to go to? It's a horror." Analysts said the speech sounded like it was part of Medvedev's election campaign and showed that Medvedev would inherit Putin's agenda. "It sounded like a final report on the eight years of his presidency," said Stanislav Belkovsky, who heads the National Strategy Institute think-tank.