Vladimir Putin has said Russia will suspend its participation in its only remaining nuclear arms treaty with the US, scaling up tensions to a level unseen since the cold war as his invasion of Ukraine nears its first anniversary.
In a state-of-the-nation address on Tuesday, the Russian president claimed the US had effectively forced him to start the war by threatening Russia, making his most explicit threats to deploy nuclear weapons since the war began.
“Our relations have degraded and that’s completely and utterly the US’s fault,” Putin said.
His remarks came hours before US president Joe Biden was set to give his own centrepiece address in Poland to mark the war’s first anniversary and reiterate the west’s support for Ukraine after his unexpected visit to Kyiv on Monday.
The US said Russia was failing to comply with the New Start treaty in January after talks on resuming inspections of each country’s nuclear arsenal, suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic, faltered. The treaty, which limits both countries to having 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons, expires in 2026.
Russia has said talks on the treaty are unlikely to resume unless the west agrees to hold comprehensive talks on Ukraine without Kyiv’s participation, which the US has said is unacceptable.
Putin also hinted at the prospect of resuming nuclear tests, though he claimed Russia would only do so in response to US tests.
“If the US conducts tests, then so will we. Nobody should have any illusions that global strategic parity can be destroyed,” Putin said.
Putin’s speech was intended to demonstrate Moscow’s resolve in continuing the conflict, despite the failure of its initial blitzkrieg plan and the devastating losses the country has suffered.
Though the speech was ostensibly dedicated to the war in Ukraine, Putin’s primary focus was what he described as a western attempt to destroy Russia by using Ukraine as a “battering ram” against Moscow.
“The western elite is not hiding its goal: to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia. What does that mean for us? To finish us off once and for all — that is, they intend to turn a local conflict into a global one. That’s exactly how we understand it and we will react accordingly,” Putin said.
“This is about the very existence of our country,” Putin added. “But they can’t admit to themselves that defeating Russia on the battlefield is impossible.”
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Putin, not the west, was to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Nobody is attacking Russia. There’s a kind of absurdity in the notion that Russia was under some form of military threat from Ukraine or anyone else,” Sullivan said on Tuesday.
“If Russia stops fighting the war in Ukraine and goes home, the war ends. If Ukraine stops fighting, and the United States and the coalition stops helping them fight, Ukraine disappears from the map. So I think that kind of tells you everything you need to know about who’s responsible for this war,” Sullivan said.
In his address, Putin said Russia would do everything it could to rebuild Ukrainian areas under its control after it seized them during the invasion’s early days and claimed them for Russia.
He promised to “return long-awaited peace and ensure people’s safety” in the four Ukrainian provinces partly under Russia’s control. Putin also said Russia would set up a state foundation that would support war veterans, as well as the relatives of people killed and wounded fighting in Ukraine.
Putin warned that the west was “making a bet on national traitors” to “break up Russia from within”, but indicated Russia would not increase repression against dissent. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Russia in the past year after the Kremlin banned all criticism of the war and police violently dispersed protests against it.