MOSCOW — The world is facing a rising threat of a nuclear war because of the U.S. pullout from arms control treaties and its destabilizing military plans, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday
Speaking at his annual news conference, Putin warned that "it could lead to the destruction. of civilization as a whole and maybe even our planet."
The Russian leader added that even though a nuclear conflict now seems impossible to most, the danger is close and real.
"We are witnessing the breakup of the arms control system," he said.
He pointed at Washington's intention to walk away from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and its reluctance to negotiate the extension of the 2010 New START agreement. U.S. officials say the withdrawal from the INF was prompted by Russian violations of the treaty, but Moscow vehemently denies any breaches.
"We will have to ensure our security," Putin said during the news conference that lasted nearly four hours. "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."
The Russian leader also scoffed at Western allegations that he is reaching for global domination, rejecting them as part of a smear campaign driven by domestic policy.
"As for ruling the world, we know where the headquarters trying to do that are located, and the place isn't Moscow," he said, noting that the Pentagon's annual budget of over $700 billion dwarfs Russia's defense spending of $46 billion.
He dismissed claims that Russia is interfering abroad, from a nerve agent poisoning in Britain to an alleged effort to infiltrate the U.S. National Rifle Association, charging that those accusations are part of U.S.-led efforts to paint Russia as a bugaboo to strengthen the Western allies' unity.
"They need an external threat to cement NATO unity," Putin said, accusing the U.S. and its allies of exploiting "phobias of the past" to achieve domestic political goals.
Russia's hopes for repairing ties with the U.S. under President Donald Trump have fizzled amid allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election — charges Putin has denied.
He noted that he's still keeping the door open for a meeting with Trump, but added that the prospect for that looks increasingly dim in view of the Democrats winning control of the House.
"You can predict new attacks on the president with 100-percent probability," Putin said. "I don't know if he could engage in a direct dialogue with Russia in such conditions."
He charged that that the continuing U.S. political infighting reflects a "lack of respect for voters" who elected Trump. "They don't want to acknowledge his victory and do everything to delegitimize the president," Putin added.
He insisted that a Russian woman in U.S. custody has not carried out any mission for the Russian government, even though she pleaded guilty earlier this month 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.
Amid a litany of complaints over Washington's policies, Putin had one nice thing to say about the United States: He welcomed Trump's decision to withdraw the U.S. military from Syria.
The U.S. "has done the right thing," Putin said, reaffirming the long-held Russian argument that the U.S. presence in Syria is illegitimate because it wasn't vetted by the U.N. Security Council or approved by Syrian President Bashar Assad's government. The pullout is also likely to strengthen Russia's role in Syria's future.
He showed no sign of backing down from Russia's stance on Ukraine, accusing his Ukrainian counterpart 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 the U.S. and its NATO allies condemned as unjustified use of force by Russia.
Turning to nuclear weapons, Putin warned that if the U.S. puts intermediate-range missiles in Europe after its planned exit from the INF Treaty banning them, Russia will be forced to take countermeasures.
He noted that the U.S. also 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 will survive," he said. "We will ensure our security; we know how to do it. But it will be very bad for the whole of humankind, because it would take us to a very dangerous area."
The Russian president pointed at Western defense analysts discussing the possibility of using low-yield nuclear weapons, warning that its authors naively believe in a limited conflict involving smaller weapons. "Lowering the threshold could lead to a global nuclear catastrophe," he said.
Putin also emphasized that the U.S. pondering the use of ballistic missiles with conventional warheads represents another deadly threat. He argued that the launch of such a missile could be mistaken for the launch of a nuclear-tipped one and trigger a nuclear retaliation.
"Imagine a submarine firing a ballistic missile: How on Earth should we figure out whether it's nuclear or not?" he said. "It's extremely dangerous."