MOSCOW – 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 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.
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 it has bolstered its defensive missile strength in the Eastern European enclave of Kaliningrad.
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 defense 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.
The growing brinkmanship also extends to defenses against possible cyberattacks.
Finland’s undersecretary of state, Jori Arvonen, told reporters Monday that a joint NATO-European Union center is planned for Helsinki to study “hybrid” warfare, including cyberespionage and propaganda via social media.
Arvonen said the planned center seeks to battle online incursions that could be “diplomatic, military, technological or financial in their nature.”
U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. president-elect confirmed his intention to normalize U.S.-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 an economic 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.”
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