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Putin Takes Aim at U.S., West; Threatens New Arms Race, U.S. Media In Russia


Russian President Vladimir Putin made his comments at a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club meeting of political scientists in Sochi on October 19.

President Vladimir Putin threatened a potential new arms race, accusing Washington of wanting out of a key Cold War treaty and warned of new restrictions of U.S. media if American officials pressure Russian media.

The Russian leader's comments were part of a list of grievances leveled largely at the West, made during an October 19 appearance of the Valdai Discussion Club, a group of Russian and international foreign policy experts.

Putin's presentation -- a nearly 30-minute speech plus another three hours of questions and answers -- left unanswered one of the main questions hanging over his leadership: whether he intends to run for reelection in the March presidential poll. Most observers expect him to.

But he reprised many of the themes he's spoken about in his 17 years as Russia's ultimate political authority.

He said Moscow will respond "immediately and symmetrically" if the United States withdraws from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.

Severe Strain

The treaty has been under severe strain since Washington first accused Moscow of violating it, in 2014. Moscow has denied the charge, and leveled similar accusations in return.

U.S. officials have struggled to respond to alleged Russian violations, with some Republicans in Congress even calling on the Pentagon to build a new ground-launched cruise missile.

Putin criticized the 1987 treaty, saying it favored the U.S., since it banned only ground-launched cruise missiles, not those carried on naval ships and aircraft.

"If our U.S. partners wish to pull out of the treaty, then we will give an immediate and symmetrical response. I would like to make that clear right away," he told the gathering in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.

Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and the subsequent outbreak of fighting in eastern Ukraine has prompted the United States and NATO to deploy small, heavily armored military units to the Baltic Sea region amid unease there about Moscow's intentions.

U.S. forces have also stationed heavy weaponry such as tanks or artillery in some parts of the region.

Baltic Deployment

Putin downplayed the significance of the alliance's deployment in the Baltics, telling the Valdai gathering that Russia was watching the Western forces.

"Every one of their steps are known and clear to us," he said.

"It doesn't worry us," he added. "Let them train there. Everything is under control."

Putin asserted that the United States was dragging its feet over the destruction of its chemical weapons stocks, something both countries agreed to under an international treaty, as well as destroying part of its plutonium supplies, used in some nuclear weapons.

Washington has had difficulty in complying with agreements to dispose of its plutonium, due to cost overruns and a dispute over whether an alternative disposal method was allowable.

U.S. Media Operations

Putin also raised the question of U.S. media operations in Russia.

Officials with Russian state-funded media, including television channel RT and news website Sputnik, say those organizations' American units have been ordered to register under a law known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act. RT was formerly known as Russia Today.

The law was passed in the 1930s aimed at limiting the spread of Nazi propaganda in the United States.

Since a U.S. intelligence report in January accused RT and Sputnik of being part of a Russian campaign to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, a growing chorus of officials in Washington have called on those Russian media to comply with the law.

The Justice Department has not confirmed that it issued any order to RT or Sputnik.

Responding to a question from RT's editor-in-chief, Putin echoed recent comments by a number of Russian officials, suggesting that some U.S. media in Russia, including CNN, Voice of America, and RFE/RL, could be targeted in retaliation.

"We will act in a way that reflects their moves and we will do this quickly. As soon as we see steps being taken that limit the actions of our media there will be a tit-for-tat response," he said.

He also praised RT as "doing brilliant work" and said the channel was much smaller than U.S. and British media working internationally, whom he said routinely interfere in the domestic politics of other countries.

While RT distributes its programs freely in the United States on cable television, and Sputnik has an FM radio frequency in Washington, RFE/RL and Voice of America have no access to cable TV in Russia.

RFE/RL once had about 100 radio channels inside Russia, but nearly all of them were shut down by 2012, either due to licensing restrictions, administrative pressure, or other measures.

'Unprecedented Anti-Russian Campaign'

Putin also took aim at new U.S. sanctions passed by Congress this summer and reluctantly signed into law by President Donald Trump.

"An unprecedented anti-Russian campaign has been launched in the United States," Putin said. "After losing the election to Trump, they have put all the blame on Russia and engaged in a frenzied anti-Russian hysteria." Putin did not elaborate on whom he referred to by "they."

The sanctions cement existing measures imposed on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, and make it harder for the White House to lift them without congressional approval. They also target European companies that have energy-related deals with Russian companies, for example, to participate in the Baltic Sea gas pipeline known as Nord Stream.

"Some even make no effort to hide that they are using political grounds and pretexts to advance their own commercial interests. Thus, the recent package of sanctions passed by Congress blatantly is connected to the effort to push Russia out of European energy markets and force Europe to move toward more expensive U.S. liquefied natural gas," he said.

The question of the sanctions arose coincidentally at a forum in New York on October 19, where the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations endorsed the new sanctions, noting their support came in large part because of Russia's alleged meddling in the presidential election.

"The Russians, God bless them, they're saying, 'Why are Americans anti-Russian and why have we done the sanctions?'" Haley told the gathering. "Well, don't interfere in our elections and we won't be anti-Russian. We have to be so hard on this and we have to hold them accountable."

"When a country can come interfere in another country's elections that is warfare. It really is, because you're making sure that the democracy shifts from what the people want," Haley said. "This is their new weapon of choice and we have to get in front of it."

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