ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Today Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled an arsenal of nuclear weapons that he says can overcome U.S. defenses. Putin devoted nearly half of his annual State of the Nation address to high-tech superweapons that he says the Russian military is developing. As NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow, the speech comes less than three weeks before Russia's presidential election.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: In the past, President Putin has traditionally held his State of the Nation speech in December, but this year it got pushed back all the way to March. Speaking to government officials in Moscow on national TV, Putin rattled off Russia's domestic problems as if he were an opposition candidate who had nothing to do with them, promising to cut the number of poor people in half and double the country's highway budget. About an hour into his speech, Putin got to his favorite part - how the Americans tried to ignore Russia and now face a military rival they never expected.
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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: "Nobody listened to us," he said. "Listen to us now." On big screens flanking him, Putin showed videos of computer animation depicting missiles and torpedoes being launched at an adversary that could only be America.
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KIM: That included a nuclear cruise missile with an unlimited range that Putin said could evade any air defense system, unstoppable hypersonic warheads and an underwater nuclear drone that could attack coastal naval installations. Putin's message was that U.S. plans for a global missile defense shield are futile. But Putin was also responding to the Trump administration's announcement last month that the U.S. may consider using what it calls low-yield nuclear weapons to deter regional conflicts.
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PUTIN: (Through interpreter) We will consider any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or her allies as a nuclear attack on our country. Our response will be instantaneous and with all ensuing consequences.
KIM: Putin said he wasn't bluffing. But just in case anybody got too worried about his intentions, he said Russia's new weapons are only defensive and intended to keep the strategic balance in the world. Appeals to Russia's military might resonate across the country's vast territory. On Sunday, I met office security guard Dimitri Ardonov (ph) in Vladivostok, seven time zones east of Moscow.
DIMITRI ARDONOV: (Through interpreter) Four years ago, Putin had a choice. He could keep on being nice and presentable but let the country be humiliated, or he could stand up against everyone else to make things better for Russia. He chose the second option. How can you let down that kind of guy? He acted like a real man.
KIM: People like Ardonov are exactly the kind of voters Putin is trying to attract to the polls in the March 18 presidential election, according to Moscow political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. He says Putin's combative words need to be taken as a campaign speech.
DMITRY ORESHKIN: (Through interpreter) It's partially an attempt to blackmail the West, but 80 percent of it is a message to patriotic voters who were dispersed after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The idea is to remind people that we're surrounded by enemies.
KIM: While nobody doubts Putin has his fourth term already wrapped up, the Kremlin is concerned the predictability of the election will keep people from going to the polls, thereby lowering voter turnout and with it Putin's legitimacy. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.
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