MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin said he sees “nothing unusual” in Donald Trump’s pledge to strengthen the U.S. nuclear forces, saying the statement is in line with the U.S. president-elect’s campaign promises.
Speaking at an annual news conference Friday, Putin also said Russia’s military is stronger than that of any potential aggressor, though he admitted that the U.S. has a bigger military.
“Indeed, they have more missiles, more submarines and more aircraft carriers, we aren’t arguing with that, but we are simply stronger than any aggressor.”
Putin says the Russian military modernization helped strengthen the nation’s nuclear forces, adding that Russian military’s nuclear missiles can penetrate any missile defense.
Putin said Russia had to develop the capability after the U.S. in 2001 opted out of a Cold War-era treaty banning missile defense systems. He added that “it’s not us who have been speeding up the arms race.”
He argued that the modernization of Russian nuclear forces is in line with existing arms control agreements, including the New Start Treaty with the United States.
He said that faced with the development of U.S. missile defense systems, Russia has developed nuclear weapons capable of piercing it.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump’s transition team had attempted to clarify the president-elect’s position on nuclear weapons.
“In his quest to keep us safe and secure, he’s putting the world on notice,” senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said on MSNBC that day. “What he’s saying is we need to expand our nuclear capability, really our nuclear readiness or our capability to be ready for those who also have nuclear weapons. … I think that we’re getting a little too far ahead of ourselves that he’s changing policy and making policy in a way that he did not intend.”
On Friday, MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski reported that she had spoken with the president-elect regarding his tweet on the nuclear arsenal. Mr. Trump reportedly told Brzezinski: “Let it be an arms race because we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
Putin also praised Mr. Trump for keenly feeling American voters’ mood to win the election, and he rejects the White House’s accusations of meddling in the vote. He said that Russia hopes to develop “businesslike and constructive relations that would benefit both Russia and the United States.”
In response to President Barack Obama, who said “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave” upon seeing recent poll results showing that more than one-third of Republicans view Putin favorably, Putin said Reagan would be happy to see his party win.
Putin also criticized the U.S. administration for trying to shift the blame for Hillary Clinton’s defeat by making claims of Russian interference.
Putin said U.S. Democrats should have apologized to American voters over the information revealed by hackers who posted Democratic National Committee e-mails.
Responding to accusations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, Putin said that the hackers could have been located anywhere. He shrugged off Washington’s claims of their Russian affiliation.
Asked how he responded to Mr. Obama’s hacking accusations brought up in their conversation, the Russian leader said he never makes confidential conversations public.
Putin touched on several other topics at his end-of-year press conference:
Putin said it’s necessary to establish a cease-fire across the entire territory of Syria, to be followed by peace talks.
Putin said that now that Syrian government forces have taken full control of Aleppo, “the next stage should be a cease-fire on the entire territory of Syria and the launch of talks on a political settlement.”
He said the leaders of Turkey and Iran, which have helped broker the withdrawal of the remaining civilians and militants from Aleppo, have agreed that Syria peace talks should be held in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. He added that Syrian President Bashar Assad agrees to that.
Putin says that other regional players, including Saudi Arabia, could help contribute to peace efforts and the United States is welcome to join in.
Putin said Russia will continue efforts to eradicate doping but fails to accept the widespread belief in world sports of a state-backed cheating program.
He said Russia will work together with the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency to uproot doping, but added that some of the accusations against Russia have been unfair.
He pointed at Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory, accusing him of forging doping evidence against Russian athletes at the behest of foreign forces he didn’t name. Putin said Rodchenkov was forcing Russian athletes to take illegal substances he had brought in from Canada, where he had previously worked.
A WADA investigation has revealed massive tampering with doping samples in what it described as a state-sponsored scheme. Russia has denied the accusations of state sponsorship of doping and promised to help fix the shortcomings.
Putin said that peace talks sponsored by France and Germany should remain the basis for efforts to settle the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
A peace deal brokered by Berlin and Paris in February 2015 has helped reduce the scale of fighting in eastern Ukraine, where more than 9,600 have died in battles between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia separatists that erupted in April 2014. However, clashes have continued and political settlement has stalled.
Putin said at a news conference Friday that the “Normandy format hasn’t been highly effective but there is nothing else, and work in that format should continue or the situation will deteriorate.”
Responding to demands to release Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov and other Ukrainians jailed in Russia, Putin has called for a comprehensive deal to free all prisoners, including those held in Ukrainian prisons.
Putin said the killing of the Russian ambassador to Turkey will not hurt cooperation between the two nations. He said the killing of Ambassador Andrei Karlov on Monday was “an attack on Russia-Turkey relations.”
Putin noted that the killer was a police officer, saying it reflected a high level of “penetration of destructive forces” into the Turkish military and security forces.
Turkish officials have claimed that the killer had links to the organization of Fethullah Gulen, a preacher who has been living in exile in the United States. Gulen has rejected the allegations.
Putin said that despite the killing, Russia-Turkey relations will remain strong, noting cooperation with Ankara on Syria.
Putin said the nation’s economy is on the path to recovery, saying the Russian economy is expected to shrink by 0.6-0.7 percent this year - a much smaller decline compared to 2015 when it contracted by 3.7 percent.
Russia is enduring a deep recession in the wake of Western sanctions and the sharp drop in oil prices.
Putin said some sectors have posted growth this year, showing that the Russian economy is on the mend.
Despite the economic backdrop, Putin said hard currency reserves of the Russian Central Bank increased this year, from $368 billion to about $385 billion.