Putin says U.S. decision on INF treaty could be path to 'global nuclear catastrophe'
In 4-hour session, Putin says he 'generally' agrees with Trump that ISIS has been defeated in Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a chilling warning Thursday about the rising threat of a nuclear war, saying "it could lead to the destruction of civilization as a whole and maybe even our planet."
Speaking at his annual news conference in Moscow, Putin pointed at the U.S. intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. He said that if the U.S. puts intermediate-range missiles in Europe, Russia will be forced to take countermeasures.
"We are witnessing the breakup of the arms control system," Putin said, noting the U.S. plan to opt out of the INF Treaty and its reluctance to negotiate the extension of the New START agreement.
He also noted that Western analysts are talking about the possibility of using low-yield nuclear weapons.
"There is a trend of lowering the threshold" of using nuclear weapons, Putin said. "Lowering the threshold could lead to a global nuclear catastrophe.
"We will have to ensure our security. And they shouldn't squeak later about us gaining unilateral advantages. We aren't seeking advantages, we are trying to preserve the balance and ensure our security."
Putin also emphasized that the U.S. is pondering the use of ballistic missiles with conventional warheads, saying that the launch of such a missile could be mistaken for the launch of a nuclear-tipped one and trigger a global catastrophe.
"If that happens, it could lead to the destruction of the entire civilization and may be even our planet," he said.
Putin also noted that the U.S. appears to show little interest in extending the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, which expires in 2021.
"You aren't interested, you don't need it? OK, we know how to ensure our security," he said.
Pleased if U.S. follows through on Syria pledge
When asked about Donald Trump's decision on Wednesday to begin withdrawing forces from Syria, Putin said he "generally" agreed with the U.S. president's decision that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had been defeated there.
Putin said "major advances" had been made in defeating militant in Syria, but, "there is a danger that those terrorist groups might infiltrate neighbouring countries, for example, Afghanistan and their own countries."
Russia, since at least September 2015, has helped keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power by providing military support, helping turn the war in the government's favour.
Putin reaffirmed the long-held Russian argument that the U.S. presence in Syria is illegitimate because it hasn't been vetted by the UN Security Council or approved by Assad's government.
Putin admitted he was still unclear what the U.S. withdrawal will mean in actual practice, a common refrain heard from even American allies in the past hours seemingly caught off guard by the Trump declaration.
The Russian leader said it remained to be seen if the U.S. keeps its word, noting Washington's 17-year presence in Afghanistan despite sending occasional signals of pulling out there.
Putin spoke on several other subjects during a session that lasted nearly four hours:
On conflict with Ukraine in Azov Sea
Putin showed no sign of backing down from Russia's stance on Ukraine, accusing President Petro Poroshenko of provoking a naval standoff with Russia to boost his electoral prospects.
The Russian Coast Guard fired upon and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels and 24 seamen when they tried to sail from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov in what U.S. and its NATO allies condemned as unjustified use of force by Russia.
Ukraine instituted martial law and announced Russian males between 16 and 60 would be be barred from travelling to the country while it was in effect.
"When it comes to military vessels, they have to be in touch with our border guards," said Putin. "In the context of martial law I find it difficult to imagine, how military vessels will roam around. But overall, we would like to normalize everything [in the Azov Sea]."
On Butina, Skripal cases
He insisted that a Russian woman in U.S. custody had not carried out any mission for the Russian government, even though she pleaded guilty to acting as a covert agent of the government. Putin claimed that Maria Butina — accused of trying to infiltrate the NRA and American conservative circles around the time of Trump's election — made the guilty plea because of the threat of a long prison sentence in the case, which Putin described as fabricated.
He described British accusations of Russian involvement in the poisoning of a former spy in Salisbury as part of Western efforts to isolate and weaken Russia. However, he voiced readiness to normalize ties after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March in the British town. Both recovered after spending weeks in the hospital, but months after their poisoning, a British woman who inadvertently came in contact with the Novichok agent died as a result.
On Russia's economy
Putin hailed another year of Russian growth after a previous period of stagnation.
Russia's gross domestic product is set to grow by 1.8 per cent this year, while industrial output has grown faster at 3 per cent, he said.
The Russian president noted that the nation's hard currency reserves have increased from $432 billion at the start of the year to $464 billion now.
The positive statistics follow a difficult period in recent years when Russia's economy has suffered a combined blow of low oil prices and Western sanctions.
Russia's economy registered 1.5 per cent growth last year following the two-year stagnation.
Putin pledged that the government will create incentives to speed up growth.