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Putin sets course for new US arms race with ‘invincible’ weapons

MOSCOW, (AFP): President Vladimir Putin on Thursday launched what appeared to be the start of a new arms race with Washington, as he boasted of a new generation of “invincible” Russian weapons developed in response to the threat posed by the United States.

Putin praised Russia’s new hypersonic missiles and cutting-edge submarines during a state of the nation address that also touched on economic and social policy ahead of a presidential election this month he is widely expected to win.

The president usually delivers the annual speech in the Kremlin but this year spoke from a nearby exhibition centre — allowing him to show a series of slick video montages of missiles manoeuvring across mountains and oceans, and heading over the Atlantic.

Putin quoted a speech he gave back in 2004, vowing that Russia would develop a new generation of weaponry, a promise that he said has now been fulfilled.

“No one really wanted to talk to us basically. No one listened to us then. Listen to us now,” Putin said, prompting a standing ovation from the audience of top officials, lawmakers and celebrities.

He presented Russia’s military efforts as a response to recent actions by the United States, which last month unveiled plans to revamp its nuclear arsenal and develop new low-yield atomic weapons.

The moves come as relations between the global powers plummeted to levels not seen since the Cold War over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, and accusations that Moscow interfered in the US presidential election in 2016.

In a speech that ran to almost two hours, Putin showed tests of a new missile system that he said could fly at 20 times the speed of sound and manoeuvre up and down, and is not owned by any other country.

“This makes it absolutely invincible for any forms of air and missile defence,” he boasted, calling it an “ideal weapon”.

– ‘Fantastic’ submarines –

Russia has also developed unmanned underwater devices that move much faster than submarines and torpedoes and can carry nuclear warheads, Putin said, adding: “It’s just fantastic!”

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu later said Russian arms would be able to “overcome all existing anti-missile systems” such as those the US intends to deploy in eastern Europe and South Korea.

“This anti-missile ‘umbrella’ turns out to be a bit ‘leaky’,” he said in comments released by his ministry.

Putin, who has led Russia for almost two decades and is seeking in the March 18 election a historic fourth Kremlin term that would extend his rule to 2024, also laid out a number of social, economic and environmental measures in the speech.

In the absence of any programme and with Putin having refused to take part in TV debates with other candidates, the address suggested cutting poverty and improving the environment would be among the top goals of his expected new six-year term.

– ‘Unacceptable’ poverty –

The 65-year-old said he aimed to cut the country’s “unacceptable” poverty rate in half over the next six years, but said 22 million fewer Russians were now living below the poverty line than when he was first elected president in 2000.

He also promised further regulations for businesses in order to reduce industrial emissions, as he spoke of millions of people forced to drink water “that does not meet standards” and “black snow” in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk.

“People in industrial hubs can go for weeks without seeing the sun because of smog,” he said.

Putin, who coughed throughout the speech and was forced to pause to drink from a cup, was given an ecstatic reception in the hall during the televised address but some online comments were less complimentary.

“The old man only perked up when he was talking about how he can destroy the world. A moment of truth!” former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky said on social media.

Political analyst Alexei Makarkin told AFP the speech was intended to appeal to a domestic audience ahead of the election.

“Putin’s talking about a future with a modern health system, cheap credit, new schools and powerful missiles. It’s the image of the superpower our people dream of and it’s attractive to voters,” he said.

Despite Putin’s campaign promises when he returned to the Kremlin in 2012 after four years as prime minister, his last term was marked by a fall in living standards and Russia’s international isolation.

Boosted by a slavish domestic media and foreign military interventions, including the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, his approval rating remains sky-high and official polls suggest he is likely to take almost 70 percent of the vote on March 18.

(In a speech that ran to almost two hours, Putin showed tests. of a new missile system that he said could fly at 20 times the speed of sound. Photo: AFP)

Published Date: Thursday, March 1st, 2018 | 11:24 PM

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