MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military on Friday to work out a quid pro quo response after the test of a new U.S. missile banned under a now-defunct arms treaty.
In Sunday’s test, a modified ground-launched version of a U.S. Navy Tomahawk cruise missile accurately struck its target more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) away. The test came after Moscow and Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
Speaking at a meeting of his Security Council, Putin charged that the U.S. waged a “propaganda campaign” alleging Russian breaches of the pact to “untie its hands to deploy the previously banned missiles in different parts of the world.”
He ordered the Defense Ministry and other agencies to “take comprehensive measures to prepare a symmetrical answer.”
The U.S. said it withdrew from the treaty because of Russian violations, a claim that Moscow has denied.
In an interview this week with Fox News, Defense Secretary Mark Esper asserted that the Russian cruise missiles Washington has long claimed were a violation of the now-defunct Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces, or INF, treaty, might be armed with nuclear warheads.
“Right now Russia has possibly nuclear-tipped cruise – INF-range cruise missiles facing toward Europe, and that, that’s not a good thing,” Esper said.
The Russian leader noted that Sunday’s test was performed from a launcher similar to those deployed at a U.S. missile defense site in Romania. He argued that the Romanian facility and a prospective similar site in Poland could also be loaded with missiles intended to hit ground targets instead of interceptors.
Putin has previously pledged that Russia wouldn’t deploy the missiles previously banned by the INF Treaty to any area before the U.S. does that first, but he noted Friday that the use of the universal launcher means that a covert deployment is possible.
“How would we know what they will deploy in Romania and Poland — missile defense systems or strike missile systems with a significant range?” Putin said.
A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Robert Carver, disputed Putin’s assertion that the land-based U.S. missile defense system in Romania could be used to launch ground-attack missiles. He said the U.S. launch system in Romania, known as Aegis Ashore, “does not have the capability to fire offensive weapons of any kind,” including a cruise missile like the Tomahawk variant used in the Aug. 18 U.S. test.
“It can only launch the SM-3 interceptor, which does not carry an explosive warhead,” Carver said, adding that it would take “industrial-level construction to reconfigure it to fire offensive weapons. That reconfiguration would entail major equipment installation and software changes.”
Russia long has charged that the U.S. launchers loaded with missile defense interceptors could be used for firing surface-to-surface missiles. Putin said that Sunday’s test has proven that the U.S. denials have been false.
“It’s indisputable now,” the Russian leader said.
He added the missile test that came just 16 days after the INF treaty’s termination has shown that the U.S. long had started work on the new systems banned by the treaty.
While Putin hasn’t spelled out possible retaliatory measures, some Moscow-based military experts theorized that Russia could adapt the sea-launched Kalibr cruise missiles for use from ground launchers.
The Interfax news agency quoted a retired Russian general, Vladimir Bogatyryov, as saying that Moscow could put such missiles in Cuba or Venezuela if the U.S. deploys new missiles near Russian borders.
Putin said Russia will continue working on new weapons in response to the U.S. moves, but will keep a tight lid on spending.
“We will not be drawn into a costly arms race that would be disastrous for our economy,” Putin said, adding that Russia ranks seventh in military spending after the U.S., China, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France and Japan.
He added Russia remains open to an “equal and constructive dialogue with the U.S. to rebuild mutual trust and strengthen international security.”
Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.