Vladimir Putin has suspended Russia’s participation in the last remaining nuclear arms control pact with the US, announcing the move in a bitter speech which made clear he would not change his strategy in the war in Ukraine.
In his long-delayed state-of-the-nation address, the Russian president cast his country — and Ukraine — as victims of western double-dealing and said it was Russia, not Ukraine, fighting for its existence.
“We aren’t fighting the Ukrainian people,” he said ahead of 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.”
He also sharply upped the ante by declaring Moscow would suspend its participation in the New Start Treaty. The pact, signed in 2010 by the US 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.
Mr Putin also said Russia should stand ready to resume nuclear weapons tests if the US does so, a move that would end a global ban on such tests in place since the Cold War era.
US 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.
It comes after Mr Blinken told China at the weekend that it would be a “serious problem” if Beijing provided arms and ammunition to Russia.
China and Russia have aligned their foreign policies to oppose Washington. Beijing has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion or atrocities against civilians in Ukraine while strongly criticising western economic sanctions on Moscow.
The deputy head of Ukraine’s intelligence service, Vadym Skibitskyi, told the Associated Press that his agency has not seen any signs that China is providing weapons to Moscow.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 last year and made a dash towards Kyiv, apparently expecting to overrun the capital quickly, but stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces — supported by western weapons — turned back Moscow’s troops.
While Ukraine has reclaimed many areas initially seized by Russia, the sides have become bogged down elsewhere.
The war has revived the divide between Russia and the West, reinvigorated the Nato alliance, and created the biggest threat to Mr Putin’s rule of more than two decades.
US President Joe Biden, fresh from a surprise visit to Kyiv, was in Poland on Tuesday to solidify that western unity.
Much of this year’s speech covered old ground, as he offered his own version of recent history, discounting Ukraine’s arguments 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,” he said in the speech broadcast on all state TV channels. “They intend to transform the local conflict into a global confrontation.”
He added that Russia is prepared to respond as “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.
Mr Putin denied any wrongdoing in Ukraine, even after Kremlin forces struck civilian targets, including hospitals, and are widely accused of war crimes.
Ukraine’s military reported on Tuesday that Russian forces shelled the southern cities of Kherson and Ochakiv while Mr Putin spoke, killing six.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian troops were “again mercilessly killing the civilian population”.
Mr Putin began his speech with strong words for countries that provided Kyiv with 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,” he said before an audience of legislators, state officials and soldiers.
He 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”.
He also claimed western sanctions had not “achieved anything and will not achieve anything”.
In his his own speech later on Tuesday, Mr Biden is expected to highlight the commitment of Poland and other allies of Ukraine over the past year.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the address will not be “some kind of head to head” with Mr Putin, adding: “This is not a rhetorical contest with anyone else.”