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Putin Slams U.S. Missile Test, Downplays Moscow Protests, Bids To Reassure On Radiation

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto hold a joint news conference in the Presidental Palace in Helsinki on August 21.

Russian President Vladimir Putin used a visit to neighboring Finland to criticize the U.S. testing of a ground-based cruise missile, play down an ongoing protest movement in Moscow, and reassure Russia's neighbors about radiation threats following a deadly explosion at a military testing site.

Putin made his comments in a question-and-answer session with reporters on August 21 during a visit to the Finnish capital, Helsinki, to meet with the Nordic country's president, Sauli Niinistop.

The talks had been expected to focus on bilateral cooperation in trade, the economy, and investment, but Putin's meeting with the press largely dealt with Russian domestic matters and international issues and disputes.

He told the joint press conference with Niinistop that a test of a new U.S. missile that had been banned under the now-defunct Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia had created new threats that will require a response from the Kremlin.

The Pentagon announced on August 18 it had test-fired a conventional ground-launched cruise missile that can strike a target more than 500 kilometers away.

The test came after the United States and Russia both pulled out of the 1987 INF Treaty that banned such weapons.

Putin asserted that the U.S. ability to quickly test the weapon indicated Washington had begun work on it before announcing its intention to withdraw from the pact.

He said Washington could easily use systems already existing in Europe to launch the new missile, posing a threat to Russia.

"Launches of this missile can be carried out from systems already in Romania and Poland. All you have to do is change the software.... This entails the emergence of new threats for us that we must react to accordingly," the Russian president said.

Putin's comments came despite U.S. assurances that it had no imminent plans to deploy new land-based missiles in Europe.

Meanwhile, Putin played down the significance of a series of large street protests in Moscow, calling them a part of "preelection tensions."

He justified the police detention of large numbers of protesters, saying demonstrations in other European capitals had had much more serious consequences.

“The events taking place there are much larger in scale, with political slogans as well, and they have rather dire consequences for the participants of such manifestations," he said. "Over there, we are talking about a significant number of people killed, about thousands of protesters injured, including those with grave injuries, and about thousands of injured law enforcement officers."

Weekly protests have shaken the Russian capital for more than a month since the local authorities barred some opposition and independent candidates from running in next month's municipal elections.

Police have used force to disperse the demonstrations, which they described as "illegal mass gatherings," and detained more than 2,000 people, although many were later released.

Putin also attempted to reassure his Finnish counterpart over an explosion at a Russian naval test site that killed at least five people and caused a temporary spike in radiation levels.

Putin said the August 8 accident in the northern Russian region of Arkhangelsk occurred during the test of a weapons system, but he said he could not reveal everything about the incident for security reasons.

He said, though, that all services monitoring radiation are working and that radiation levels are normal, adding that the same applies for neighboring countries.

Some U.S. officials have said they believe radioactive elements were involved in the accident, and many analysts have focused attention on a nuclear-powered cruise missile that Putin announced was under development last year.

Putin and Niinisto meet regularly. Putin visited Finland last year, while the most recent bilateral meeting took place in April in St. Petersburg on the sidelines of the Arctic Forum.

Finland, like its neighbor and fellow European Union member Sweden, has since 1994 cooperated with NATO in the Partnership for Peace program and participated in NATO-led operations in Afghanistan, although neither country is a member of the Western military alliance.

With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa, and TASS
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