In an exclusive interview with The Times, the Russian leader says: “It is obvious that if part of the strategic nuclear potential of the US is located in Europe and will be threatening us, we will have to respond.
“This system of missile defense on one side and the absence of this system on the other . . . increases the possibility of unleashing a nuclear conflict.”
Russia has been alarmed at America’s plans to install a network of defenses in Eastern Europe to shoot down incoming missiles it fears that Iran might launch.
Mr Putin expressed skepticism of this motive, arguing that “There are no such missiles – Iran does not have missiles with the range”. The US was insisting, he said, that the defense system was to be “installed for the protection from something that does not exist. Is it not sort of funny? It would be funny if it were not so sad.”
He speculated that the US’s real motive was to provoke Russia’s retaliation and so “to avoid further closeness of Russia and Europe”.
Mr Putin’s tough warning comes days before the start of the G8 meeting of the world’s most powerful industrialized economies.
His uncompromising stand on America’s missile defense, Kosovo, Iran and climate change was partly blamed for the failure of last month’s summit between Russia and the European Union.
Mr Putin had warm words for the “cordial reception” that Tony Blair had given him, and for Gordon Brown, “a high-class specialist”. But he offered little room for compromise on Britain’s request for the extradition of Andrei Lugovoy, the former intelligence officer, wanted on charges of the murder of dissident former agent Alexander Litvinenko by radioactive poisoning in London.
“No matter from what angle we look at this problem, it’s all stupid, stupid nonsense”, he said of Britain’s extradition request. “I will not see any single positive component. It’s complete nonsense.”
Russian authorities were investigating the case and if enough evidence were found, the case would “certainly be sent to court”, he said. In theory, he added, “there are possible circumstances” in which Russia would comply with the extradition “but it would require an amendment to the Constitution.”
But Britain had not provided justification for such a dramatic move, he said. If heads of British law enforcement agencies “did not know that the constitution prohibits the extradition of Russian citizens to foreign states then their competence is questionable” and “they should work for parliament or newspapers” because the request was at heart “only a political public relations step”.
He also gave no quarter on the cases of Shell and BP, the British oil giants, who have recently seen the terms of their investments in Russia rewritten because of alleged breaches of their licences.
Mr Putin insisted that he wants “cooperation not confrontation”, repeatedly blaming the US for its intransigence. But of all the potential clashes at the G8 meeting, which begins on Wednesday in Germany, it is his warnings on Russian retaliation to the US missile defence plans that are likely to cause the greatest friction.
He called on “our American friends to rethink their decision” and warned that ”We cannot be responsible for our reciprocal steps because it is not us who are initiating an arms race in Europe”.
He added: “We will need to establish such systems which would be able to penetrate the [US] missile defence systems. . . What kind of means will be used to hit the targets that our military believe are potential threats – ballistic missiles, or cruise missiles, or some kind of new weapons system?
Mr Putin threatened that in retaliation, Russia might stop complying with agreements to reduce conventional forces.
“We have brought all our heavy weapons beyond the Urals and reduced our military forces by 300,000. But what do we have in return? we see that Eastern Europe is being filled with new equipment, two positions in Bulgaria and Romania, as well as radar in the Czech Republic, and missile systems in Poland. What is happening? Unilateral disarmament of Russia is happening.”
He also warned that Russia might quit a treaty with the US to cut stocks of intermediate range missiles because so many other countries were racing to develop these weapons.