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Putin Threatens To Target U.S. With Missiles In State-Of-Nation Speech

Putin Warns U.S. Not To Discount Russia's Weapons Capabilities
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WATCH: Putin Warns U.S. Not To Discount Russia's Weapons Capabilities

Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued fresh threats against the United States while promising increased social benefits to raise living standards as his popularity reaches near-record lows amid ongoing economic woes.

In his annual state-of-the-nation address on February 20 to Russia's two-chamber parliament -- the Federal Assembly -- Putin said that, if Washington deployed intermediate-range missiles in Europe, Moscow would not only target the countries hosting the U.S. weapons but the United States itself.

Reacting to Putin's comments, NATO said such threats are "unacceptable."

This year's speech comes as a recent poll has shown public trust in Putin was at its lowest level in 13 years amid continuing economic woes.

More than one in five Russians now live in poverty, according to recent research by an institute with links to the Kremlin. Nationwide protests broke out in 2018 over the government's plans to raise the age of eligibility for pensions.

Russia still faces international sanctions for its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, as well as its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, where more than 10,300 have died since the conflict erupted in April 2014.

Putin has dominated politics in Russia for two decades, serving as president or prime minister since 1999.

In 2018, Putin, 66, was reelected to another six-year term. Critics say he has maintained his near monopoly on power by crushing political opposition and stifling dissent.

INF Treaty

In his speech, Putin repeated Russian assertions that the United States withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty to develop its missile-defense systems.

Putin said Russia wanted friendly relations with the United States and remained open for arms-control talks with Washington, but said Moscow would not initiate such negotiations.

"We don’t want confrontation, particularly with such a global power as the United States," Putin said.

At the same time, Putin criticized what he described as the "destructive" U.S. policy of targeting Russia with sanctions.

Put said some U.S. policymakers were "obsessed with U.S. exceptionalism" before warning they should calculate the risks before taking any steps.

Putin Warns U.S. Not To Discount Russia's Weapons Capabilities
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"It's their right to think how they want. But can they count? I'm sure they can. Let them count the speed and the range of the weapons systems we are developing," Putin told Russia's political elite to strong applause.

"Russia will be forced to create and deploy types of weapons that can be used not only in respect of those territories from which the direct threat to us originates, but also in respect of those territories where the centers of decision-making are located," he said.

In a statement, NATO spokesman Piers Cazalet said threats to target allies were "unacceptable," adding that the Western military alliance had "no intention of deploying new land-based nuclear weapons in Europe."

Cazalet called on Russia to "focus on returning to compliance" with the INF Treaty, adding that Moscow's claims that NATO defense systems in Eastern Europe violate the treaty were a "blatant attempt to distract attention from its breach."

"The alliance's missile defense is purely defensive," he said. "The Aegis Ashore sites in Romania and Poland are fully compliant with the INF Treaty."

The United States earlier this month launched the six-month process to leave the INF Treaty, after Washington and NATO repeatedly accused Moscow of violating the accord by developing the 9M729 cruise missile, also known as the SSC-8.

Russia, which denies the accusation, said it was also withdrawing from the INF Treaty, which banned both countries from developing, producing, and deploying ground-launched cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

Despite his trumpeting of Russia's military capabilities, Putin dedicated much of his nearly 90-minute speech to domestic affairs, unlike last year, when he focused mainly on claims about breakthroughs in the country's military arsenal and unveiled six nuclear-capable weapons and said they were unparalleled in the world.

This time, Putin boasted that the country had "colossal" resources to invest, using money "earned, not borrowed."

Tax Breaks

He promised tax breaks, lower mortgage rates, and housing subsidies for families with several children.

He said that the tax burden on developers will be eased to encourage them to expand housing construction.

Putin also emphasized the need to combat poverty, saying that 19 million of Russia's approximately 147 million people live below the official poverty line, currently the equivalent of around $160 a month.

Putin said "honest businesses" should not live in fear of prosecution. Those comments come amid the high-profile arrest of U.S. investor Michael Calvey, who is currently in pretrial detention on Russian fraud charges that he and his company call completely baseless. Several prominent Kremlin loyalists have also expressed doubt about the charges.

Elsewhere, Putin said a railway link to Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014, will start working this year.

It is the 15th time Putin has given the address, before an audience that traditionally includes both houses of the legislature, or Federal Assembly; government ministers; judges from the Constitutional and Supreme courts; leading regional officials; and other members of the political elite.

The address is one of three regularly scheduled national appearances Putin makes each year -- the others being a lavish question-and-answer session with the public and a stage-managed annual press conference.

Putin's speech comes amid anxieties among Russians about the state of the economy, emerging from a recession largely caused by Western sanctions and low oil prices.

Russia's state statistics agency recently announced gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 2.3 percent in 2018. That was much higher than most forecasts, sparking questions over whether Rosstat may have tampered with the data.

Whether the numbers are true or not, more and more Russians are struggling to get by.

In a November 21 report, the Kremlin-linked Russian Presidential Academy of the National Economy and Public Administration said 22 percent of Russians fall into the "poverty zone," meaning they are unable to buy anything beyond basic staples needed for subsistence.

With poverty up, Putin's numbers are down.

A poll by the Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) released on January 17 found that trust in Putin had fallen to 33.4 percent, its lowest level since 2006.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, TASS, Interfax, and Dozhd