Nuclear war, Nato and no mention of Navalny: Putin steps up threats against West in rambling speech

The Russian leader’s more than two-hour speech to the country’s parliament involved his oft-repeated threats to use nuclear weapons against the West – this time in response to the idea of Nato troops in Ukraine

Tom Watling
Friday 01 March 2024 06:28 GMT
Putin threatens West with Nuclear weapons

Vladimir Putin has spoken for more than two hours in a rambling state of the nation speech, during which he issued a series of nuclear threats against the West ahead of presidential elections in two weeks. But there was one name he would not say, Alexei Navalny, his most prominent critic.

Navalny died in an Arctic prison earlier this month. The opposition leader’s family and supporters say he was killed by Putin. Western leaders have also lined up to lay the blame at Putin’s door.

Navalny will be buried in Moscow on Friday. He was serving a decades-long prison sentence on charges that were seen as trumped up to silence him, having been seen as a threat to Putin for his ability to pull together dissent against the Kremlin.

Addressing legislators in Moscow, having turned up 15 minutes late, Putin began his speech by speaking of the “pride” he has in Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, which happened a decade ago, and the subsequent capture of parts of eastern Ukraine. Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, launched two years ago, has caused hundreds of thousands of casualties among Russian troops according to US estimates, with much of the frontline in bloody stalemate, despite some recent advances by Moscow’s troops.

Kyiv’s troops have been staunchly defending their territory, with Putin reiterating his false claims that Russia is seeking to liberate areas populated by Russian people oppressed by Ukrainian rule – as opposed to illegal annexations of Ukrainian territory decried by the international community.

Despite a crackdown on criticism of the invasion of Ukraine, with long prison sentences handed out to dissenters, the Russian leader sought to claim that the “absolute majority” of Russians supported the war.

The Russian autocrat, who will certainly assume office for his fifth term after a presidential ballot in mid-March, then alleged that the West was attacking Russia via Ukraine, a narrative that he has maintained throughout his full-scale invasion. Putin’s speech was broadcast to cinemas across the country and on billboards in Moscow. According to Russian state media, the crowd applauded Putin more than 80 times.

Vladimir Putin delivers his annual address to the Federal Assembly, in Moscow, 29 February 2024 (via Reuters)

Addressing comments made by French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this week that he could not rule out the idea of sending soldiers into Ukraine, Putin said: “There has been talk about the possibility of sending Nato military contingents to Ukraine. But we remember the fate of those who once sent their contingents to our country’s territory. But now the consequences for possible interventionists will be far more tragic.”

He then launched into a nuclear warning, something he has reached for repeatedly since the Ukraine invasion started.

“They must realise that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory. All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilisation. Don’t they get that?”

Sergey Radchenko, a Russian-born British historian, suggested Putin’s quick lurch to nuclear threats suggested Mr Macron had “touched a raw nerve”.

“I thought it was interesting that Putin’s speech included a direct reference to Macron’s recent remark that the use of Nato’s troops in Ukraine should not be excluded,” he said. “His apoplectic reaction to this [threatening nuclear war] suggests that Macron touched a raw nerve.”

Putin later suggested that the West was being cavalier about the threat Russia poses. “The West is trying to drag us into an arms race. They are trying to wear us down, to repeat the trick they succeeded [in pulling off] with the Soviet Union in the 1980s,” Putin said. “Therefore, our task is to develop the defence-industrial complex ... (and) the scientific, technological and industrial potential of the country.”

Russian civilians watch Vladimir Putin’s address from a cinema in Volgograd, 600 miles south of Moscow (Telegram )

For Professor Radchenko, however, this merely “belies the fact that Putin himself does not know what a world war would be like”.

If he did, the historian said, he would “perhaps behave with greater circumspection”. He also downplayed the nuclear threats of Putin, saying it was “part and parcel of his usual arsenal of threats that he uses to dissuade the West from helping Ukraine”.

On the ground in Ukraine, the Russian army is trying to seize the towns and villages of Tonenke, Orlivka, Semenivka, Berdychi and Krasnohorivka in the eastern Donetsk region, Ukraine’s army chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi has said. Those are places where Ukrainian military officials had said they would form a new line of defence after Ukrainian troops pulled out of the symbolically important town of Avdiivka earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s air force commander Mykola Oleshchuk said his units shot down two Russian Su-34 jets overnight. That makes a total of 11 warplanes, including an early warning and control A-50 plane, that Ukraine claims to have downed since 17 February.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, had told reporters in the run-up to the address that Putin’s speech should be understood as a political pitch for his re-election.

Though his reappointment is not in doubt – Putin is already the longest-standing Russian leader since Joseph Stalin – he did use the speech to speak about domestic issues outside of the war in Ukraine.

After roughly 15 minutes on Ukraine, Putin spent nearly two hours then addressing issues in Russia. He offered spending promises across as many sectors as possible, seemingly aimed at the Russian public, but more importantly at the heads of businesses and regional officials. Those that he needs to keep on his side politically.

Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert, described this as a “painfully extended political broadcast promising money for everything… but with no sense of how this could be paid for, when 40 per cent of the state budget is going to the war [in Ukraine]”.

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