MOSCOW • President Vladimir Putin yesterday accused the United States of raising the risk of nuclear war by threatening to spurn a key arms control treaty and refusing to hold talks about another pact that expires soon.
The United States has threatened to pull out of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which bans Moscow and Washington from stationing short-and intermediate-range, land-based missiles in Europe.
Mr Putin said the move, if it happened, would have unpredictable consequences.
"We are essentially witnessing the breakdown of the international arms control order and (the start of) an arms race," Mr Putin told his annual news conference with hundreds of reporters. "It's very hard to imagine how the situation will develop (if the US quits the INF treaty). If these missiles appear in Europe what should we do? Of course we'll have to ensure our own security."
Another US-Russia treaty, the New Start pact, which limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads each side can have, expires in 2021.
Mr Putin said he was worried that Washington did not appear to be interested in discussing its future. "No talks on extending this are yet being held. Are the Americans not interested, do they not need them? Okay, we'll survive and will ensure our own security, which we know how to do. But in general, this is very bad for humankind because it takes us closer to a dangerous threshold."
The Russian leader, who said Moscow had developed nuclear weapons which he believed gave it an edge over other countries, warned that the threat of a nuclear conflict was growing as a result of the US moves.
He also cited the dangerous tendency of lowering the threshold for using nuclear weapons and the idea of using ballistic missiles with conventional warheads.
"If, God forbid, something like that were to happen, it would lead to the end of all civilisation and maybe also the planet," said Mr Putin. "I hope that humankind has enough common sense and sense of self-preservation not to take things to such extremes."
The annual event, Mr Putin's 14th of its kind, is used by the Russian leader to burnish his leadership credentials and send messages to foreign allies and foes.
Mr Putin has long sought to bring the United States to the table on nuclear arms control talks. Analysts say that is in part because it is one of the only international issues in which Moscow and Washington can face each other as equals.
But President Donald Trump and his National Security Adviser, Mr John Bolton, have expressed scepticism of the existing arms control architecture.
Mr Putin also said sanctions on Russia imposed by Western countries were the result of the country's increasing international influence.
"This is connected with the growth of Russia's power," he said. "A powerful player appears who needs to be reckoned with. Until recently, it was thought there was no longer such a country."
He said Russia's economy had "adapted" and that in some ways sanctions had been positive, pointing to the expansion of Russian agriculture as an example.
Mr Putin won a landslide re-election victory in March, giving him six more years in power. That will take his political dominance of Russia to nearly a quarter of a century, until 2024, by which time he will be 71.
Though he faces no serious political threat for now, plans to sharply raise the pension age saw his approval rating fall below 60 per cent for the first time in five years in a poll published by the Levada Centre last month.
Mr Putin, 66, has been in power, either as president or prime minister, since 1999.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE