By Dmitry Solovyov
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Tuesday that Russia would rearm its military and boost its nuclear forces despite the raging economic crisis because U.S.-led NATO is expanding towards its borders.
Moscow has sent conflicting signals to Washington since the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president. The Kremlin says it wants to improve ties with the White House, but it has also taken steps to stem rising U.S. influence in ex-Soviet states.
"Attempts to expand the military infrastructure of NATO near the borders of our country are continuing," Medvedev told an annual meeting with Defence Ministry staff.
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Medvedev's comments appeared aimed at Russian "domestic consumption" and dismissed any notion that NATO posed an offensive threat to Russia.
Russia saw plans by the previous U.S. administration to push for NATO membership for ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia, and to deploy elements of a missile shield in Eastern Europe, as a direct threat to its national security.
And, while welcoming Obama's desire to give ties a fresh start, Medvedev, who will meet Obama in London on April 1, has said he expects Washington to match declarations with deeds.
Medvedev told Russia's top military brass that the prospect of NATO's expansion, combined with the threat of local crises and international terrorism, "requires a modernization of our armed forces, giving them a new modern shape."
"The primary task is to increase the combat readiness of our forces. First of all, our strategic nuclear forces. They must be able to fulfil all the necessary tasks to ensure Russia's security," Medvedev said.
Alexander Sharavin, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Political and Military Analysis, said Russia "should not be carried away by this anti-NATO rhetoric."
"NATO's expansion in itself does not present any threat..." he told editorially independent radio Ekho Moskvy. "This organisation cannot present a threat -- it has multidirectional interests, because there are more than two dozen states there."
"America's aspirations have been aimed at getting access to mineral, energy and other resources of CIS countries, and it has actively supported processes aimed at ousting Russia from the area of its traditional interests," Interfax news agency quoted Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov as telling the meeting with Medvedev.
"ISSUES OF MUTUAL CONCERN"
The United States expressed no concerns about Medvedev's announcement.
"NATO and the United States have worked, and will continue to work, with Russia on issues of mutual concern, specifically in areas of terrorism and (nuclear) proliferation," Gibbs told reporters at a daily briefing.
The State Department said the Obama administration looked forward to a "very productive" relationship with Russia.
Russia and its ex-Soviet allies in Central Asia have allowed transits of non-military NATO cargo across their territories en route to U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan.
But almost simultaneously, Kyrgyzstan decided last month to close a strategic U.S. air base after securing more than $2 billion (1.4 billion pounds) in loans and aid from Russia.
After the meeting with Medvedev, the commander of Russian strategic nuclear forces said Russia would soon deploy its first regiment of RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missiles, an upgraded version of the formidable Topol-M mobile complex.
The new missiles would enter service after December 5, when Russia's START-1 (Strategic Arms Reduction) Treaty with the United States is due to expire, local news agencies quoted Colonel-General Nikolai Solovtsov as saying.
Facing scathing opposition criticism and staunch resistance from many generals, the Kremlin launched an ambitious reform this year to make the largely demoralized armed forces smaller, more mobile and better equipped.
Military experts say the reform was prompted by Russia's five-day war with Georgia in August. Russian troops quickly advanced and seized large chunks of Georgian land after Tbilisi tried to retake its rebel South Ossetia province by force.
But the war also exposed a lack of modern equipment, such as high-precision bombs, modern communications and spy drones.
(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov, additional reporting by Ross Colvin in Washington, editing by Patricia Zengerle)