President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday delivered a warning to the West over Ukraine by suspending a landmark nuclear arms control treaty, announcing that new strategic systems had been put on combat duty, and threatening to resume nuclear tests.
Nearly a year after ordering an invasion that has triggered the biggest confrontation with the West in six decades, Putin said Russia would achieve its aims and accused the West of trying to destroy it.
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“The elites of the West do not hide their purpose. But they also cannot fail to realise that it is impossible to defeat Russia on the battlefield,” he told his country’s political and military elite.
Alleging that the United States was turning the war into a global conflict, Putin said Russia was suspending participation in the New START treaty, its last major arms control treaty with Washington.
Signed by then-U.S. president Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, the treaty caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads that the countries can deploy.
Due to expire in 2026, it allows each country to physically check the other’s nuclear arsenal, although tensions over Ukraine had already brought inspections to a halt.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Putin’s move “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible”. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said it made the world a more dangerous place, and urged Putin to reconsider.
The Russian leader said, without citing evidence, that some in Washington were considering breaking a moratorium on nuclear testing.
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“… if the United States conducts tests, then we will. No one should have dangerous illusions that global strategic parity can be destroyed,” Putin said.
“A week ago, I signed a decree on putting new ground-based strategic systems on combat duty.”
It was not immediately clear which systems he meant.
Putin said Ukraine had sought to strike a facility deep inside Russia where it keeps nuclear bombers, a reference to the Engels air base.
Russia and the United States together hold 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads.
The New START Treaty limited each side to 1,550 warheads on deployed missile launchers and heavy bombers. Both sides met the central limits by 2018.
Russia’s foreign ministry said later on Tuesday that Moscow intended to continue abiding by the restrictions outlined in the treaty on the number of warheads it could have deployed.
Putin, who has over the past year repeatedly hinted that Russia could use a nuclear weapon if threatened, was in effect saying that he could dismantle the architecture of nuclear arms control unless the West backs off in Ukraine.
Putin said the conflict had been forced on Russia, particularly by NATO’s eastward expansion since the Cold War.
“The people of Ukraine have become the hostage of the Kyiv regime and its Western overlords, who have effectively occupied this country in the political, military and economic sense,” he said.
Kyiv and Western leaders such as U.S. President Joe Biden, who visited the Ukrainian capital on Monday, reject that narrative as an unfounded pretext for a land grab, and say Putin must be made to lose his gamble on invasion.
Russian forces have suffered three major battlefield reverses but still control around a fifth of Ukraine. Tens of thousands of men have been killed on both sides.
Speaking for an hour and 45 minutes below a large two-headed Russian eagle crest, and flanked by eight tricolour Russian flags, Putin vowed that Moscow would achieve its aims in Ukraine and thwart the U.S.-led NATO alliance in the process.
“They intend to transform a local conflict into a phase of global confrontation,” he said. “This is exactly how we understand it all and we will react accordingly, because in this case we are talking about the existence of our country.”
The United States says it is concerned Beijing may be considering supplying weapons to Russia, a step that might transform the war into a confrontation between Russia and China on the one side and Ukraine and NATO on the other.
China, whose top diplomat Wang Yi visited Moscow on Tuesday, has dismissed these concerns and cautioned against any nuclear escalation, while reaffirming a new, wide-ranging alliance with Russia.
Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Putin’s powerful Security Council, told Wang that China was a top priority for Russian foreign policy and that the two countries must stick together against the West, Russian state news agencies reported.