Vladimir Putin has said Moscow will develop new mid-range nuclear weapons in response to Donald Trump's planned withdrawal from a key arms control treaty with Russia.
The statement came after secretary of state Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday that the United States would no longer abide by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty if Russia did not come into compliance within 60 days.
Mr Putin insisted that he was “against the destruction of this treaty,” but agreed with Mr Trump's complaint that it ties the hands of the two Cold War foes while other countries can develop short- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles.
“Now our American partners apparently think the situation has changed so much that the United States also needs to have this kind of weapon. What will our response be? It's simple. We will also do this,” he said.
In fact, Moscow is already doing this, if Washington is to be believed. Barack Obama's administration first accused the Kremlin of breaking the treaty in 2014 by secretly developing a ground-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile dubbed the SSC-8, which could threaten US bases and allies in Europe.
Russia has denied this and accused the United States of testing banned missiles and drones.
Also on Tuesday, the defence ministry announced the deployment of its new Peresvet laser, which Mr Putin first mentioned along with nuclear-powered cruise missiles and torpedoes in a sabre-rattling speech shortly before he was re-elected in March.
Although little is known about the laser, experts believe it could destroy cameras or sensors on spy satellites and planes or possibly take down a drone.
Despite US complaints about Russia's new missile, Mr Obama did not withdraw from the INF treaty, fearing it could spark an unrestrained arms race. Some 2,600 ground-based cruise missiles with ranges of 310 to 3,400 miles were destroyed once Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan signed the agreement in 1987.
But after long-time arms control critic John Bolton became national security adviser, Mr Trump turned against the agreement and announced in October he would terminate it. Mr Bolton issued a memo last week ordering a withdrawal from the treaty by Tuesday and the development and deployment of mid-range missiles “at the earliest possible date”.
Instead, the United States softened this stance on Tuesday, offering the 60-day window for compliance, reportedly thanks to a last-minute plea to Mr Trump by Angela Merkel and other European leaders at the G20 summit.
The demise of the treaty would probably threaten their countries the most, as Washington and Moscow could again deploy missiles around Europe. The INF agreement was adopted to ban Sabre mid-range missiles, which allowed the Soviet Union to target much of Europe, and the Pershing IIs that the United States deployed to Western Germany.
Russia already in February deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea, in range of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Speaking outside a Moscow event where he awarded a prize for volunteer of the year, Mr Putin took a jab at Mr Pompeo as being “a bit late” with his statement.
“First the American side said it's determined to withdraw from the treaty on intermediate- and shorter-range missiles, then they started to look for reasons why they should do this,” he said. “As usual they're not providing any evidence of these violations by us.”
Since Mr Obama's New Start treaty, which reduces the US and Russia's overall nuclear arsenals, is set to expire in 2021, the world may soon be left without any nuclear arms control for the first time since 1972.
Without the INF, the Kremlin could work openly on weapons to respond to the growing nuclear arsenal in neighbouring China.
But Moscow-based defence analyst Dmitry Kornev said Russia, which has been hit by sanctions and lower oil prices, would have difficulty funding the development of new mid-range missiles. The SSC-8 has a flight time of several hours compared to just minutes for ballistic missiles.
“It's a new round of the arms race,” he said. “These missiles don't exist now, we will have to create them, and it's a heavy financial burden.”
“A definite loser is Europe, a definite loser is Russia, and for the United States the situation won't change, the number of warheads targeting US territory won't increase,” he added.
The latest back-and-forth over the INF treaty comes amid high tensions after Russia seized three Ukrainian ships off Crimea and deployed anti-ship and anti-air missiles to the peninsula, which it annexed in 2014.
Ukraine has declared martial law and has called up military reservists, claiming that Russia has been building up troops for a potential ground invasion.
The deployment of the new Russian laser system announced on Tuesday, while surely meant to intimidate Western adversaries, won't change the balance of power.
Laser weapons, which are already in service with the US navy and are being tested by the US army, are not powerful enough to bring down a plane. But they could discourage reconnaissance around sensitive targets including nuclear missile bases, Mr Kornev said.
“Like any modern camera, the camera on a satellite has a sensor, a CCD sensor, that could be destroyed by a high-power laser, just burned up. Then this camera would be blinded,” he said.