Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he gives his annual state of the nation address in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. (Dmitry Astakhov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended Moscow’s participation in the last remaining nuclear arms control pact with the U.S., announcing the move Tuesday in a bitter speech where he made clear he would not change his strategy in the war in Ukraine.
In his long-delayed state-of-the-nation address, Putin cast his country — and Ukraine — as victims of Western double-dealing and said it was Russia, not Ukraine, fighting for its very existence.
“We aren’t fighting the Ukrainian people,” Putin said in a speech days before the war’s first anniversary on Friday. “The Ukrainian people have become hostages of the Kyiv regime and its Western masters, which have effectively occupied the country.”
The speech reiterated a litany of grievances that the Russian leader has frequently offered as justification for the widely condemned military campaign while vowing no military let-up in a conflict that has reawakened fears of a new Cold War.
On top of that, Putin sharply upped the ante by declaring that Moscow would suspend its participation in the so-called New START Treaty. The pact, signed in 2010 by the U.S. and Russia, caps the number of long-range nuclear warheads the two sides can deploy and limits the use of missiles that can carry atomic weapons.
Putin also said that Russia should stand ready to resume nuclear weapons tests if the U.S. does so, a move that would end a global ban on such tests in place since the Cold War era.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described Moscow’s decision as “really unfortunate and very irresponsible.”
“We’ll be watching carefully to see what Russia actually does,” he said during a visit to Greece.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, and made a dash toward Kyiv, apparently expecting to quickly overrun the capital. But stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces — backed by Western weapons — turned back Moscow’s troops. While Ukraine has reclaimed many areas initially seized by Russia, the two sides have become bogged down in tit-for-tat battles in others.
The war has revived the old Russia-West divide, reinvigorated the NATO alliance, and created the biggest threat to Putin’s more than two-decade rule. U.S. President Joe Biden, fresh off a surprise visit to Kyiv, was in Poland on Tuesday on a mission to solidify that Western unity — and planned his own speech.
Observers were expected to scour Putin’s address for any signs of how the Russian leader sees the conflict, where he might take it and how it might end. While the Constitution mandates that the president deliver the speech annually, Putin never gave one in 2022, as his troops rolled into Ukraine and suffered repeated setbacks.
Much of the speech covered old ground, as Putin offered his own version of recent history, discounting arguments by the Ukrainian government that it needed Western help to thwart a Russian military takeover.
“Western elites aren’t trying to conceal their goals, to inflict a ‘strategic defeat’ to Russia,” Putin said in the speech broadcast by all state TV channels. “They intend to transform the local conflict into a global confrontation.”
He added that Russia was prepared to respond since “it will be a matter of our country’s existence.” He has repeatedly depicted NATO’s expansion to include countries close to Russia as an existential threat to his country.
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, who was in Ukraine on Tuesday, said she had hoped that Putin might have taken a different approach.
“What we heard this morning was propaganda that we already know,” Meloni said in English. “He says (Russia) worked on diplomacy to avoid the conflict, but the truth is that there is somebody who is the invader and somebody who is defending itself.”
Putin denied any wrongdoing, even as the Kremlin’s forces in Ukraine strike civilian targets, including hospitals, and are widely accused of war crimes. On the ground Tuesday, the Ukrainian military reported that Russian forces shelled southern cities of Kherson and Ochakiv while Putin spoke, killing six people.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lamented that Russian forces were “again mercilessly killing the civilian population.”
Many observers predicted Putin’s speech would address Moscow’s fallout with the West — and Putin began with strong words for those countries that have provided Kyiv with crucial military support and warned them against supplying any longer-range weapons.
“It’s they who have started the war. And we are using force to end it,” Putin said before an audience of lawmakers, state officials and soldiers who have fought in Ukraine.
Putin also accused the West of taking aim at Russian culture, religion and values because it is aware that “it is impossible to defeat Russia on the battlefield.”
Likewise, he said Western sanctions would have no effect, saying they hadn’t “achieved anything and will not achieve anything.”
Underscoring the anticipation ahead of the speech, some state TV channels put out a countdown for the event starting on Monday. Reflecting the Kremlin’s clampdown on free speech and press, this year it barred media from “unfriendly” countries, the list of which includes the U.S., the U.K. and those in the EU. Peskov said journalists from those nations will be able to cover the speech by watching the broadcast.
He previously told reporters that the speech’s delay had to do with Putin’s “work schedule,” but Russian media reports linked it to the setbacks of Russian forces. The Russian president postponed the state-of-the-nation address before, in 2017.
Last year, the Kremlin also canceled two other big annual events — Putin’s press conference and a highly scripted phone-in marathon where people ask the president questions.
Analysts expected Putin’s speech would be tough in the wake of Biden’s visit to Kyiv on Monday. In his his own speech later Tuesday, Biden is expected to highlight the commitment of the central European country and other allies to Ukraine over the past year.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that Biden’s address would not be “some kind of head to head” with Putin’s.
“This is not a rhetorical contest with anyone else,” said.
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