Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump on Thursday called for the strengthening of their countries’ nuclear capabilities.
Speaking at a meeting of defence chiefs in Moscow, Mr Putin said Russia needed to “strengthen the strategic nuclear forces, for that we should develop missiles capable of penetrating any current and prospective missile defence systems”, according to the Tass news agency.
Mr Putin claimed Russia’s military was able to repel any possible threat. Russia was now “stronger than any potential aggressor”, he said.
A few hours after the Russian president spoke, Mr Trump tweeted that the US needed to expand its nuclear capabilities. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” the US president-elect wrote.
The Trump transition team did not respond immediately to questions about whether Mr Trump was referring to the current US nuclear modernisation programme, which will not result in an increase in the number of warheads in the nuclear arsenal.
The Trump transition website contains a statement that his incoming administration “recognizes the uniquely catastrophic threats posed by nuclear weapons and cyber attacks” and that Mr Trump would “ensure our strategic nuclear triad is modernized to ensure it continues to be an effective deterrent”.
Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said it was unclear if Mr Trump was simply supporting the current US programme or was talking about adding more weapons.
The tweet came the morning after Mr Trump met Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, and some of the top Pentagon brass.
“This tweet is probably his ham-handed attempt to express his support for the (modernisation programme),” said Mr Kimball. “(But) he also said we must strengthen and expand our nuclear capacity, which implies that he is thinking about, or wants to build new nuclear warheads . . . which would be a radical departure in US policy that goes back decades.”
Mr Kimball stressed that, regardless of the intention of Mr Trump’s tweet, it was “very irresponsible for the president-elect or president to, in 140 characters, try to encapsulate the future direction of policy of the worlds’ largest nuclear superpower”.
Mr Putin’s comments follow the most intense nuclear posturing by Moscow since the end of the Soviet Union.
Russia has cancelled three nuclear deals with the US, while Russian state television recently warned that Washington was about to start a war, comparing tension over Syria with the Cuban missile crisis.
Some analysts saw Moscow’s nuclear posturing as an attempt at intimidating the incoming Trump administration, as well as bolstering Mr Putin ahead of elections in 2018.
Despite huge spending on military modernisation in recent years, Russia’s conventional forces remain a fraction of the size of Nato’s. But its nuclear arsenal is on a par with America’s — though both are far smaller than at the height of the cold war — allowing it to level the playing field.
Russia’s armed forces have been deployed in Mr Putin’s stand-off with the west over Syria and Ukraine. In 2014, they took the Crimean peninsula and last week helped Syrian government forces retake Aleppo, a key flashpoint in the country’s five-year civil war.
In Syria, Russian armed forces have killed 35,000 rebel fighters and destroyed 725 training camps since Moscow intervened on behalf of president Bashar al-Assad’s regime last year, according to Sergei Shoigu, Russian defence minister. Moscow had carried out 18,800 sorties and 71,000 strikes in Syria, Mr Shoigu added.
The military has used 162 different weapons systems in the conflict, which has served as a showcase for much of the new equipment developed under Mr Putin’s modernisation drive. Mr Shoigu also said Russia would produce five new strategic bombers and add three new units to Russia’s nuclear forces.
The US army’s commander in Europe has accused Russia of treating its Syria campaign as a “live-fire training opportunity”. Speaking to the BBC, Lt Gen Ben Hodges said Moscow’s “disregard for civilian casualties . . . is not the conduct of a nation that wants to be treated like a superpower”.
Russia’s intervention in Syria, which sidelined the US, is widely believed to have turned the tide of the civil war in Mr Assad favour. But the campaign has also seen antipathy towards Moscow rise in parts of the region where the rebels enjoy support, including Turkey.
Also on Thursday Mr Putin attended the funeral of Andrei Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, who was shot dead by a former riot policeman claiming to exact revenge for the Aleppo siege. Karlov was posthumously named a Hero of Russia, the country’s highest honour.