MOSCOW (Reuters) - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told CNN television that Russia would deploy nuclear weapons and “strike forces” if it were shut out of a Western missile shield, adding punch to a warning from President Dmitry Medvedev.
In an interview with Larry King taped on Tuesday, Putin also said the WikiLeaks scandal was “no catastrophe” and told the United States not to meddle with Russian elections.
Putin said missile threats against Europe must be tackled jointly — a reference to an agreement reached at a November 20 Russia-NATO summit to cooperate on missile defense. Plans are sketchy and Russia has warned it wants an equal role.
If Russia’s proposals are rejected and Western missile defense installations create “additional threats” near its borders, “Russia will have to ensure its own security,” he said.
Russia would “put in place new strike forces ... against the new threats which will have been created along our borders,” he said, according to a translation in an excerpt on CNN’s website. “New missile, nuclear technologies will be put in place.”
Putin said Russia was not threatening the West, but the remarks underscored the Kremlin’s insistence on maintaining a significant role in a missile defense system and suggested improving ties could sour again if agreement is not reached.
In his state of the nation address on Tuesday, Medvedev warned that a new arms race would erupt if U.S. and NATO offers of cooperation on missile defense failed to produce a concrete agreement within a decade.
“That’s not our choice, we don’t want that to happen. This is no threat on our part,” Putin said. “We’ve been simply saying that this is what all of us expect to happen if we don’t agree on a joint effort there.”
U.S. plans for a missile shield have been a major irritant in its ties with Moscow since the Cold War. Now both Russia and the West are casting missile defense cooperation as a crucial ingredient in recipes to bring the former foes closer.
As part of a campaign to ‘reset’ strained relations with Moscow, President Barack Obama last year scrapped Bush-era plans for a radar and interceptor missiles in eastern Europe that Russia said would be a major threat to its security.
Russia has been far more accepting of Obama’s revised blueprint, which involves shorter-range interceptors. But Putin suggested Russia would feel threatened if the United States pushes ahead without significant Russian input.
The Kremlin warnings come amid uncertainty over U.S. Senate ratification of New START, a strategic nuclear arms limitation treaty signed by Obama and Medvedev in April and seen as the linchpin of improving relations.
Russia emphasizes it could withdraw from New START if a U.S. missile shield develops into a threat to its security.
Putin’s interview was conducted shortly after Medvedev delivered his biggest annual address in the Kremlin, timing that seemed to emphasize that the former president has a strong hand on Russia’s reins despite now holding Russia’s No. 2 office.
“I think he is underscoring for the West that he remains one of Russia’s two leaders — that he maintains serious reserves of power and would like to continue to take part in determining foreign policy,” analyst Alexei Makarkin told Ekho Moskvy radio.
U.S. diplomatic cables revealed by the website WikiLeaks describe Putin as Russia’s “alpha-dog” ruler and Medvedev as a sidekick-like “Robin to Putin’s Batman.”
In an excerpt from the interview, Putin said the WikiLeaks scandal was “no catastrophe” and that some experts believe it could have been engineered for “political purposes.”
Putin steered Medvedev into the Kremlin in 2008 and has suggested he may return in a 2012 vote. He said he and Medvedev would make a “concerted decision” about who would run, CNN said.
Responding to a leaked cable citing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates as portraying Russia as undemocratic, Putin said Gates was “deeply misled,” CNN reported.
He said that when Russia raised shortcomings in U.S. democracy, it was told not to interfere. “I would also like to advise you, don’t interfere either (with) the sovereign choice of the Russian people,” CNN quoted him as saying.
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Jon Boyle