Putin says Russia planning ‘countermeasures’ to Nato expansion, as Moscow deploys missiles in far west

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 November, 2016, 2:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 November, 2016, 9:33pm

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is warning his forces could target Nato sites if the country feels threatened, sharply raising the stakes against the Western alliance even as US president-elect Donald Trump calls for greater outreach with the Kremlin.

“We must take countermeasures, that is strike with our missile systems the targets that, in our opinion, begin to threaten us,” Putin said in an interview with American filmmaker Oliver Stone for a documentary broadcast Monday.

His comments were reported as the US State Department warned that Russia’s deployment of its S-400 air missile defence system and ballistic Iskander missile in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad “is destabilising to European security”.

The Stone-produced documentary - about the conflict in Ukraine between pro-Moscow separatists and the Western-allied government - premiered on Russian television after advance transcripts of Putin’s remarks were circulated by Russian state-run media.

Putin’s comments were among his sharpest rebukes to Nato as the alliance increasingly focuses on perceived threats from Russia. Earlier Monday, Russia announced the Kaliningrad missile deployment.

For years, the Kremlin has voiced concerns about the membership in Nato of former Soviet republics and countries from the former East Bloc. Putin said smaller Nato countries would find it “next to impossible to resist pressure from a major Nato leader such as the United States” to deploy missile systems or host new bases.

“And what are we supposed to do? We are forced to take counter measures, that is, to aim our missile systems at those facilities which we think pose a threat to us,” he stressed. “The situation is heating up.”

Nato, meanwhile, has moved to strengthen its presence along its eastern flanks, including the Baltic states. But a major wild card has been introduced by the election victory of Trump, who has suggested that his administration will seek to improve relations with Russia.

“Why are we reacting to Nato expansion so emotionally? We are concerned by Nato’s decision-making,” Putin said in the interview for Stone’s “Ukraine on Fire.”

Hours before the broadcast, Russia said it had deployed mobile coastal defence missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave wedged between Lithuania and Poland. In October, Putin stationed nuclear-capable cruise missiles in Kaliningrad, further arming a region already bristling with weaponry on both sides.

“Russia has made threats to move its Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad for the past decade in response to a variety of developments in Europe, none of which demand such a military response,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

“We call on Russia to refrain from words or deeds that are inconsistent with the goal of promoting security and stability,” he added.

The growing brinkmanship also extends to defences against possible cyberattacks.

Finland’s undersecretary of state, Jori Arvonen, told reporters Monday that a joint Nato-European Union centre planned for Helsinki to study “hybrid” warfare, including cyberespionage and propaganda via social media.

Arvonen said the planned centre seeks to battle online incursions that could be “diplomatic, military, technological or financial in their nature.”

US intelligence officials suspect high-level Russian involvement in emails hacking targeting Hillary Clinton’s campaign chief and others during the presidential campaign.

Putin has expressed optimism that the election of Trump, who has questioned the US commitment to Nato allies, might improve relations with the United States, currently at a post-Cold War low. On Sunday, Putin told reporters in Lima, Peru, that “the US president-elect confirmed his intention to normalise US-Russia relations.”

Putin also met for what was probably the last time with President Obama, whose relationship with the Russian leader soured over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, its proxy war in Ukraine, and its aerial and missile bombardment in Syria of forces opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.

“I said both of us always treated each other’s positions with respect, although the dialogue between our two countries was rather complicated and sometimes it was difficult to work with each other,” Putin told reporters at the Apec summit in Lima. “I thanked him for the years of joint work and said we would be glad to see him in Russia anytime if he found it possible or necessary or had a wish to go there.”

Additional reporting by Associated Press