(CNSNews.com) – Weeks after hinting that he may return to the Russian presidency, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in a fresh muscle-flexing move Tuesday, threw into disarray one of President Obama’s key foreign policy priorities – talks aimed at reducing the two countries’ nuclear arsenals.
Signaling the possibility of further difficulties ahead in Moscow-Washington relations, Putin said that before Russia would consider cutting its nuclear stockpile it would need to develop new offensive weapons systems because of U.S. missile defense plans.
Asked during a visit to Vladivostok what was delaying agreement on a new arms-reduction treaty, Putin replied, “The problem is that our American partners are building an anti-missile shield and we are not building one.”
Interfax quoted him as saying that new offensive missiles would be Moscow’s answer to Washington’s plans for a defensive missile shield.
Putin’s intervention comes at a sensitive stage of a process of complex negotiations aimed at producing a successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Failing to achieve agreement by the time the original treaty expired on Dec. 5, the two sides had agreed on retaining the status quo while talks continued.
They are now scheduled to resume in Geneva in mid-January. just days ago U.S. officials indicated that agreement was close and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last Friday the work had “entered the home stretch.” Putin’s comments Tuesday threw that into doubt.
For years – both as president and as prime minister after his handpicked successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, came into office in 2008 – Putin voiced strong opposition to U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield in central Europe, as a defense against an Iranian long-range missile threat.
Disputing the Iranian focus, Moscow charged that the Pentagon proposal to deploy ten missile interceptors in Poland and a radar tracking station in the Czech Republic was in fact an attempt to undermine its own strategic deterrent.
But Obama, after a lengthy policy review, dropped those plans in September, saying the U.S. would instead look at developing an alternative system, focusing on a short- and medium-range missile threat.
The new “phased adaptive approach,” according to Missile Defense Agency, initially envisages using U.S. Navy ships equipped with interceptors and Aegis radar systems – capable of detecting and tracking missiles – deployed in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as a forward-based sensor in an as-yet undisclosed location in southern Europe.
Despite Obama’s decision, which was welcomed by the Kremlin and widely interpreted as a major concession to Moscow, Putin now appears to be taking issue with the new plan too.
“By building such an umbrella over themselves, our partners could feel themselves fully secure and will do whatever they want, which upsets the balance,” he said in Vladivostok, where he was visiting a naval port and inaugurating a major new oil pipeline.
“To preserve the balance we must develop offensive weapons systems, not missile defense systems as the United States is doing,” he said.
Putin directly linked the missile defense issue with the arms reduction talks.
“Let the Americans hand over all their information on missile defense and we are ready to hand over all the information on offensive weapons systems,” he said.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly rejected Putin’s statement, saying that the START successor treaty under negotiation was “not the appropriate vehicle” for addressing the “relationship between missile offense and defense.”
“We have agreed to continue to discuss the topic of missile defense with Russia in a separate venue,” he added.
Obama reached an initial agreement with Medvedev to reduce nuclear stockpiles at a G20 summit in London in April, after calling in a speech in Prague for “a world without nuclear weapons.”
At a summit in Moscow three months later, the two presidents agreed to cut the number of warheads to a maximum of 1,675 on each side, within seven years of a new treaty’s entry into force.
Any new treaty will need to be ratified by the U.S. Senate, with the support of at least 67 senators required. Forty-one senators – 40 Republicans and an independent – sent a letter to Obama earlier this month indicating that they would only endorse a START follow-on treaty if the move was linked to a significant modernizing of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
Although Obama reached the agreements with Medvedev, not Putin, the prime minister has not balked in the past at wading into areas reserved for the president.
“I think that Putin is showing who is in charge in Russia,” Russian defense analyst Aleksandr Golts told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, commenting on Putin’s remarks in Vladivostok.
Medvedev’s first term expires in 2012, and during a televised call-in show early this month, Putin revived speculation that he is eyeing a return to the position he held from 2000-2008.
Asked whether he planned to retire from politics, the 57 year-old Putin replied, “Don’t hold your breath.” In response to another caller’s question about whether he would consider running in the 2012 presidential elections, he said he would think about it, adding there was still enough time to do so.
In 2008, Putin was barred by the Russian constitution from seeking a third consecutive term, but he could run again in 2012 if he wished.
Furthermore, a constitutional amendment pushed through a year ago means that with effect from 2012, Russian presidential terms will be six years, rather than four.
In a Russian Public Opinion Research Center poll released on Tuesday, 67 percent of respondents named Putin as the leading figure of the Russian elite. Medvedev’s rating was 50.6 percent, which the center noted was 12 percent higher than last year.