Russian leader vows arms buildup

Nuclear weapons to aid balance, Putin says in reply to U.S.


MOSCOW -- President Vladimir V. Putin, in a blunt response to U.S. criticism of his domestic and foreign policies, declared yesterday that Russia will boost its military strength to ensure its ability to resist foreign pressure.

In an annual address to parliament, Putin said new nuclear and high-precision weapons will enable his country to maintain a strategic balance with the United States, which he compared to a wolf - the arch-villain of Russian fairy tales - doing as it pleases in the world.

"As they say, `Comrade Wolf knows whom to swallow,'" Putin said. "He swallows without listening to anyone. Nor does he intend to listen to anyone, judging by all appearances."

Putin's comments did not seem to signal a return to Cold War hostility so much as a bid by an increasingly self-confident Russia to engage in tough bargaining on international issues and to reject interference in its domestic politics.

"We have slipped toward Cold War rhetoric quite a while ago, and such passages in Putin's speech are nothing new in that sense," said Georgy Satarov, president of the INDEM Foundation, a Moscow think tank that aims to promote democratic values.

In Washington, the White House reacted sharply to Putin's address.

"We're still analyzing the speech, but we are disappointed that it did not address the concerns that many people have raised about Russia's commitment to democracy and its use of economic pressure against its neighbors," the White House said in a statement.

"The U.S. continues to work together with Russia on a number of important security and economic issues, even as we raise these concerns," the statement said.

Moscow's fresh assertiveness comes in part from rising oil prices, which have fueled strong economic growth in this energy-rich nation for the past seven years.

Putin said that despite recent increases in Russian military funding, the United States spends nearly 25 times more than Moscow. "This is what is described in the defense sphere as, `Their home is their fortress," he said. "Well done, guys," he added.

"But this means that we should also build our own home to be strong and reliable, because we can see what is happening worldwide," Putin continued.

Putin went on to ridicule those who claim "the need to fight for human rights and democracy" when they actually have "the need to realize their own interests." Putin's remarks implied criticism of such U.S. policies as the invasion of Iraq to topple former President Saddam Hussein, which Moscow opposed. His words also appeared to be a response to American accusations that Russia has curtailed democratic freedoms at home and attempted to bully neighboring former Soviet states on issues such as energy supply and territorial integrity.

Speaking to Eastern European leaders in Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 4, Vice President Dick Cheney declared that Russia's government had "unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people," and he accused Moscow of using the country's gas and oil reserves as "tools of intimidation or blackmail." Cheney also criticized Russia's support for separatist enclaves in Georgia and Moldova.

Putin said yesterday that because the United States so heavily outspends Russia in the military sphere, Moscow's aim is not to match U.S. forces in quantitative terms. "Our responses should be based on intellectual superiority," he said. "They will be asymmetric, less costly, but they will undoubtedly make our nuclear triad more reliable and effective."

Grigory A. Yavlinsky, head of the liberal Yabloko Party, issued a statement criticizing the speech as leaving Russia with an uncertain place in the world. "The foreign policy set out in the address is a policy of a besieged fortress, mistrust of partners and the feeling of superiority over neighbors," Yavlinsky said.

The bulk of the speech focused on domestic policies. Putin called for wide-ranging measures to reverse Russia's sharp population decline by providing financial incentives for women to have more babies, to help stem a population drop of about 700,000 per year. He stressed a need to place greater emphasis on developing the economy's technological foundations, while acknowledging that Russia has not solved the growth-inhibiting problem of corruption in business and the government bureaucracy.

Putin called his nation's post-Soviet demographic decline the country's "most acute problem." He called for better health care, increased birth rates and the encouragement of immigration by "educated and law-abiding people" as ways to address the problem. He emphasized financial incentives for women to have a second child, because many couples, faced with the difficulties of paying for housing and education in Russia's new market-oriented economy, limit themselves to one child per family.

David Holley writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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