Russian President Vladimir Putin says more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) will be added to the country’s nuclear arsenal this year.
Addressing the opening of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Army-2015 international military expo near Moscow on Tuesday, Putin said the new missiles “will be able to overcome any, even the most technologically advanced anti-missile defense systems.”
According to the U.S. State Department, Russia currently has 515 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers, carrying a total of 1,582 nuclear warheads.
The Russian president’s comments came amid heightened tensions between Russia and NATO countries over the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and they follow Western press reports that the United States is planning to permanently station heavy American weaponry and troops in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.
Asked about Mr. Putin’s comments, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday that they simply confirmed “the pattern and the behavior of Russia over quite a period of time,” including an increase in what he called “nuclear rhetoric.”
“This nuclear saber-rattling of Russia is unjustified,” he said. “It’s destabilizing and it’s dangerous. And this is something which we are addressing, and it’s also one of the reasons we now are increasing the readiness and preparedness of our forces.”
Asked about the U.S. plan to preposition military hardware and personnel in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, the NATO chief welcomed efforts to protect allies.
Commenting on those reports Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the plan to preposition military hardware and personnel is “still in the early stages of the policy making process, but is consistent with strategy that we have previously pursued.” President Barack Obama, he said, is “serious” about upholding the U.S. commitment to defend its NATO allies.
Russia claims no alternative
Russia’s Foreign Ministry also commented on the planned deployments, warning that such a move could provoke a military confrontation with “dangerous consequences.” Earlier Monday, Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted senior Russian defense ministry official General Yuri Yakubov as saying that the plan, if put into action, would be “the most aggressive step by the Pentagon and NATO since the Cold War of the last century,” and that Russia would have no alternative other than to “build up its forces and means in the western strategic direction.”
On Saturday, the New York Times quoted unnamed U.S. officials who said the plan was aimed at countering further Russian aggression following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula.
According to the newspaper, if the plan is approved by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and President Obama, the U.S. will store fighting vehicles and position as many as 5,000 troops in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Poland and possibly Hungary. All seven countries are NATO members.
In May, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia called on NATO to permanently station troops on their territory in order to deter Russia.
Poland said Sunday the plan would place battle tanks and other equipment on its soil. Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said he discussed the plan with U.S. military officials in Washington last month and was assured a decision would be made soon.
US lawmakers supportive
Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers from both parties told VOA they support plans to boost America’s presence in Eastern Europe.
“I agree (with the move). I visited with the president of Lithuania last August, and I know that they are quite concerned, because of the aggressiveness of Putin along their border, along with the significant Russian population that each of the Baltic states have, particularly Estonia,” said Democratic Senator Bill Nelson. “I think it’s a legitimate concern.”
Republican Senator John McCain also voiced support for the move but said that a U.S. response to Russia’s aggressive posturing should have come much earlier in the form of lethal aid to Ukraine.
“I think it’s a good thing to do, but in the absence of providing defensive weapons to Ukraine, it’s not going to have much effect on Vladimir Putin. What we are doing is a shameful chapter, by not allowing those Ukrainians to get defensive weapons,” said he.
McCain also stressed the U.S. needs to do more to counter Russia’s propaganda offensive, which he said “is intense in all of those same countries (that formerly were under Moscow’s control or influence).”
VOA’s Michael Bowman contributed to this report from Capitol Hill.
(Photo of Putin: kremlin.ru)