Russia's powerful prime minister, ex-President Vladimir Putin, may have just tossed a wrench into the sensitive last-minute negotiations aimed at finalizing a new US-Russian strategic arms reduction deal early in the New Year.
"The problem is that our American partners are developing missile defenses, and we are not," Mr. Putin complained Tuesday. "In order to maintain balance, without developing the antimissile system just like the US is doing, we have to develop an offensive combat power system."
Some analysts say Putin, whose brief as prime minister does not include strategic policy, may be simply engaging in a bit of hardball negotiation aimed at securing fresh American concessions as talks for new treaty to reduce offensive nuclear arms wind down to an expected January finish line.
"When Putin steps forward and says there are problems with the negotiations, this conveys a message to the Americans that a major Russian political figure has doubts," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.
"Indeed, there's been a lot of talk about 'resetting relations' between Russia and the US, but here we are at the end of the year and there are still no concrete achievements. It's something to think about," Mr. Kremeniuk says.
But others suggest Putin may be trying to derail the negotiations altogether.
"Our prime minister is moving those talks to total deadlock," says Alexander Golts, military expert with the online newsmagazine Yezhednevny Zhurnal. "Putin is also violating an agreement made by both sides not to reveal details of the negotiations."
Putin's demand is that the US should provide full data on any antimissile tests it conducts, or else Russia will withhold information about its tests of new offensive weapon systems.
"There is almost no chance the Americans will agree to this," says Mr. Golts.
In a statement, the State Department acknowledged that Russia has legitimate concerns about US antimissile plans -- Mr. Obama said as much
during a July summit with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Moscow -- but added that the current arms talks are not the appropriate vehicle for addressing those issues. "We have agreed to continue to discuss the topic of missile defense with Russia in a separate venue," the statement said.
Though the December deadline for finalizing that deal has already expired, President Dmitri Medvedev declared last week that it was all but ready to sign.
"Our positions are very close and almost all the issues we have been discussing are almost closed," Medvedev said. "I hope we'll be able to finish it in quite a short period of time."
But Putin's objection does not seem something that could be easily or quickly overcome.
Moscow had earlier suggested it was sufficiently mollified by President Barack Obama's decision to shelve Bush-era plans to deploy antimissile systems
in Poland and the Czech Republic to proceed with work on the new treaty that would replace the 1991 START accord.
Though exact details are not known, the new agreement is projected to modestly cut the nuclear arsenals of each side to a maximum of around 1,600 strategic warheads deployed on no more than 1,000 delivery vehicles.
The deal would not prohibit either side from developing new and more sophisticated offensive missiles, provided they remained within the ceilings stipulated by the treaty.
Experts say they're not sure what Putin was referring to when he pledged to build "a new offensive capacity" if the US doesn't give ground on missile defense.
Russia has been developing a powerful new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Bulava, for several years. But the missile has flubbed eight out of 12 recent test launches, including a spectacular failure this month that may have caused a spate of alleged UFO sightings in Norway.
Under development is also a multi-warhead version of Russia's Topol-M mobile land-based missile, known as the RS-24, and a possible new heavy intercontinental missile to replace the old Soviet-era SS-18s, the current mainstay of Russia's nuclear deterrent.
"None of these weapons projects are new," says Golts. "I think the most important conclusion we can draw from Putin's remarks is a political one, that he has decided to create some complications for the nuclear arms talks. It's not clear where this will lead."