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Russian President Putin Cautions U.S. About Missile Deployments

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is prepared to target Russian weapons at the United States if the United States builds up its missile forces in Europe. This threat comes after the U.S. withdrew from a Cold War-era arms agreement. The United States opted out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and Russia did too. NPR Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim is covering this story.

Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How strongly worded was this threat?

KIM: It was pretty strong. Putin was giving his annual state of the nation address and, actually, dedicated most of it to Russia's domestic problems. But geopolitics is still his favorite subject. And he didn't miss a chance to go after the U.S. for withdrawing from that treaty, the INF treaty, which has banned medium-range missiles in Europe for more than 30 years. Let's take a listen to what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: So what he's saying here is that if the U.S. now deploys those previously banned missiles to Europe, Russia will be forced to react, namely by using new weapons systems it has to target command centers in the United States. Now, he's previously warned European countries not to base any of those U.S. missiles, but here he's definitely upping the ante.

INSKEEP: So what kinds of weapons are we talking about when we say intermediate-range nuclear missiles? And why would Russia consider them a greater threat than whatever is available now?

KIM: Well, the problem here is that those intermediate-range missiles, they shorten the decision time for Russian leaders. He - Putin today said it was about 10 to 12 minutes for Russian leaders to decide whether they are under attack or it's a false alarm. So what he was saying is those new weapons, which Russia is developing - these hypersonic missiles that travel many times the speed of sound - would be able to reach the United States in approximately the same flight time.

INSKEEP: Oh. So I guess Russia feels threatened by these missiles because if there's an intermediate-range missile in Europe, it can reach Russia so much more quickly, can reach Moscow so much more quickly than a missile based somewhere in the United States or out on an American submarine somewhere. And so he's made this threat to target these new missiles of his own. But is it known for sure that those new missiles exist and work?

KIM: Well, actually, Putin sort of unveiled those new missiles in his last state of the nation address about a year ago. Today he said, well, those programs are all under control and going according to schedule. And so this has become sort of a centerpiece of his rearmament program.

INSKEEP: Lucian, I want to ask about something else. It is commonly said that whatever Americans think of Vladimir Putin, he's very popular in his home country, that he has stratospheric approval ratings. But here he is on television appealing to the people. Are people in Russia still behind him the same way?

KIM: Well, his rankings have been dropping. That's in part because of a very controversial raising of the retirement age. This speech was actually directed more at the parliament of the country rather than the people. The part for the people was definitely talking - spending most of this - most of his speech on social programs.

INSKEEP: You said his approval rating is dropping. Does that mean below 50 percent or just not 80 percent anymore?

KIM: It's still a little bit above 50 percent. But the government - it's clear that the government realizes that they need to address social problems as well and polls to show that Russians are more interested in butter right now than they are in guns.

INSKEEP: Lucian, that's a good place to stop. Thanks so much.

KIM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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