Dec 19, 2:21 PM EST

Putin: Russia military modernization to go ahead

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MOSCOW (AP) -- Boasting about the Russian military's capability, President Vladimir Putin vowed Friday to continue an ambitious weapons modernization program with a particular emphasis on nuclear strategic forces.

The move came amid Russia's escalating standoff with the West.

Speaking at a meeting with Russia's top military brass, Putin said the nation's nuclear forces are a "major factor in maintaining global balance," adding that "they effectively preclude the possibility of a large-scale aggression against Russia."

Putin said the military is set to receive 50 new intercontinental ballistic missiles - a significantly higher number than in previous years.

The huge military buildup is continuing despite the country's economic woes, triggered by a combination of Western sanctions against Russia and the slumping prices of oil. The ruble collapse this week stoked fears of high inflation and a banking crisis.

Russia-West relations have plummeted to post-Cold War lows over Moscow's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and support for the pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

"Once again, I would like to thank the military leadership and the military personnel for their accurate, careful and balanced action, their courage and professionalism during the event in Crimea," Putin said.

Days after Ukraine's former pro-Russia president was driven from power in February, Russia sent additional forces to Crimea, where it had a naval base. The troops seized key facilities in Crimea and blocked Ukrainian military garrisons there as residents voted to join Russia in a hastily-called referendum.

Putin initially claimed the well-armed masked men were local self-defense forces and only admitted they were Russian troops after annexing Crimea in March.

"The latest developments have shown that the Russian army is changing, getting a new image and becoming a modern force capable of fulfilling the most challenging tasks," Putin said.

The Kremlin still rejects Ukrainian and Western claims that Russia sent troops and heavy weapons to fuel the pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine, where more than 4,700 people have been killed in fighting since April.

Amid tensions over Ukraine, NATO has moved to reassure its members in eastern Europe by stepping up air patrols over the Baltic Sea and rotating military units in and out of countries like Poland and Baltic republics.

Russia also has increased the number of its air patrols, which NATO said were putting civilian flights at risks.

Last week, Russia airlifted advanced Iskander missiles to its westernmost Kaliningrad exclave bordering NATO members Poland and Lithuania for military drills. Moscow has previously warned that it could station the high-precision missiles in the region as a response to NATO's U.S.-led missile defense plans.

While the military said this week that the Iskander missiles had been pulled back from the area after the exercise, the drills demonstrated Russia's capability to quickly deploy them to the Baltic region.

Among the key priorities for the military, Putin also mentioned a plan to expand its presence in the resource-rich Arctic region.

"We aren't going to engage in the militarization of the Arctic, our actions in the Arctic are restrained and reasonable, but they are essential for ensuring Russia's defense capability," he said.

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