Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a combative state-of-the nation speech, blaming the West for the war in Ukraine ahead of the first anniversary of the invasion he ordered.
Putin spoke on Tuesday in front of a crowd of 1,400 people in Moscow, addressing members of both houses of parliament, military commanders and soldiers while video screens were also put up in large cities across the country.
Besides warning the West of a global confrontation, Putin sought to justify the invasion, saying it had been forced on Russia and he understood the pain of the families of those who had fallen in battle.
He also said Russia would suspend participation in the New START treaty, the last major pillar of post-Cold War nuclear arms control between Moscow and Washington, which limits their strategic nuclear arsenals.
Putin said Russia needed to be ready to test nuclear weapons if the United States moves to do so itself.
Almost immediately, global powers such as NATO urged Moscow against withdrawing.
The New START treaty, which was signed in Prague in 2010, caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads that the US and Russia may deploy and the deployment of land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers to deliver them.
Russia has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world with close to 6,000 warheads, according to experts. Together, Russia and the US hold about 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads – enough to destroy the planet many times over.
In 2021, New START was extended for five more years after US President Joe Biden took office.
Al Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting from Brussels, says arms negotiation has been more difficult in recent years due to tensions between Moscow and the West.
“NATO allies say that Russia wasn’t really complying with New START anyway,” he said. “But it is interesting that Putin has decided to suspend participation in this treaty, … and I think probably that’s for international consumption at this stage.
“I think there was an element of this speech that was aimed at the international community because although Europe seems to be very much on the same page with the US in terms of support for Ukraine, beyond Europe … when it comes to the issue of when should the war stop and when should there be negotiations, many believe a ceasefire should come soon, if not now.
“That is the difference that Putin was potentially trying to exploit in his speech.”
In his wide-ranging and angry speech, Putin also condemned same-sex marriage and cast the government in Kyiv as taking the Ukrainian people “hostage” for failing to address their needs.
“I would like to repeat, they started the war, and we used force in order to stop it,” Putin said, insisting that Moscow had tried to settle the conflict in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, which had been simmering since early 2014, by peaceful means but was eventually forced to take action.
“We were doing everything possible to solve this problem peacefully, negotiating a peaceful way out of this difficult conflict, but behind our backs, a very different scenario was being prepared,” the Russian leader said.
The West and aspiring NATO and European Union member Ukraine strongly reject that narrative and say NATO’s expansion eastwards after the Cold War is no justification for what they say is an imperial-style land grab doomed to failure.
“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,” Putin said. “They intend to transform a local conflict into a phase of global confrontation. 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.”
Putin claims Russia is locked in an existential battle with the West, which, he says, wants to carve up Russia and steal its vast natural resources.
“The Western elite does not conceal their goal, which is to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia,” the president said. “It means to finish us forever.”
The 70-year-old Kremlin chief said Russia would never yield to Western attempts to divide its society, adding that a majority of Russians support the war.
Polling by the Levada Centre indicates around 75 percent of Russians back Russian actions in Ukraine while 19 percent do not and 6 percent do not know. Three-quarters of Russians expect their country to be victorious.
But many diplomats and analysts doubt the figures.
Marwan Kabalan, an academic and writer, told Al Jazeera that Putin’s speech was aimed at appeasing Russians because Moscow has not achieved its military goals in Ukraine.
“He underestimated the power of Ukraine’s military” and Western support, as well as the “will of Europeans” to free themselves of Russian energy supplies, Kabalan said.
“He cannot tell the people of Russia any good news about this,” he said. “This special operation as he calls it has been going on now for almost a year and the objectives have not been achieved.
Russian forces have suffered three major battlefield reversals since the war began but still control around one-fifth of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, a rivalry within parts of Russia’s military elite seems to be increasing with Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, a private military force, criticising Russian military officials for depriving his fighters of munitions.
Reactions to Putin’s speech
A leading official in the US denounced the claims in Putin’s speech.
“Nobody is attacking Russia,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters. “There’s a kind of absurdity in the notion that Russia was under some form of military threat from Ukraine or anyone else.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukraine’s president, said Putin’s speech demonstrated his “irrelevance and confusion”.
“He stressed that RF [the Russian Federation] is in ‘taiga deadlock’, has no promising solutions and won’t have any. Because everywhere there are ‘Nazis, Martians and conspiracy theories’,” Podolyak tweeted.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni called the speech “propaganda” and said she had hoped for something more constructive.
“A part of my heart hoped for some different words, for a step ahead. It was propaganda,” Meloni said during a visit to the Ukrainian city of Irpin.