RIGA, Latvia — In the last minutes of a nearly two-hour speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday artfully dropped one bombshell into an otherwise lackluster state-of-the-nation address — suspending Russian participation in New START, the last remaining nuclear arms control accord between Moscow and Washington.
The move Tuesday seemed intended to pressure Washington to curtail its plans to provide more advanced weapons to Ukraine by reminding the United States and NATO allies of the central reason they have avoided direct involvement in the war: Putin controls the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, and he has created real uncertainty about his threshold for using a weapon of mass destruction.
A year of military failures left Putin with no victories to extol in Tuesday’s speech, so he instead drummed out his familiar — and false — refrain that Russia is the victim not the aggressor in the war. He blamed the West for “aggression,” and asserted it was “impossible to defeat Russia on the battlefield.”
Putin’s speech, however, was more significant for what the Russian leader did not say.
He offered no promise of an end to the war any time soon, made no mention of Russia’s disastrous battlefield defeats, or its growing casualties — now believed to number as many as 200,000 wounded or dead — and did not clarify his military goals. He glossed over economic challenges brought on by the war, and he portrayed the country’s increasing international isolation as a way for Russia to cleanse itself of harmful foreign ideologies.
In place of clarity about how long he planned to continue Europe’s largest land war since World War II, Putin laid out a neo-Soviet vision for his country, calling for unity and sacrifice and peppering his remarks with promises to build roads and schools, to increase the minimum wage and tax deductions, and boost support for families of killed or wounded Russian soldiers.
Putin kicked off the speech with a now-routine mix of fervent anti-Western attacks and conspiratorial tropes about Ukraine’s “neo-Nazi regime,” once again falsely claiming the war was initiated by the West, forcing Russia to respond.
The Russian president, who for most of the first year of his full-scale invasion refused to use the word “war,” used it during his speech, but only to cast blame on others for the military conflict that began on his orders. “They were the ones who started the war,” Putin said, referring to Ukraine and Western “elites” supporting Kyiv. “We used force and continue to use it to stop it.”
Opinion polls now indicate that more Russians want peace than want the war to continue, although support for Putin as wartime leader remains high. Still, he faces questions on how long the Russian public will continue to willingly send young men to die in a war offering unclear benefits to the nation, as international economic sanctions continue to bite.
While the bulk of Putin’s remarks were directed at a domestic audience, his blockbuster finish was aimed abroad. The unilateral suspension of participation in New START was a gesture typical of Putin’s approach as military defeats piled up in Ukraine: doubling down and escalating, insisting that Russia has no choice but to go on fighting.
Russia, Putin said, quoting Pyotr Stolypin, an imperial Russian prime minister from early last century, was fighting for the “one historical supreme right of Russia: to be strong.”
Arms control analysts said the suspension of Russia’s role in New START was unlikely to lead to an immediate new arms race, and the U.S. has long complained that Moscow was not living up to the accord.
The treaty limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 nuclear warheads deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles and other vehicles, and mandates exchanges of information and notifications of certain actions, such as changes in the status of missiles.
Putin said Russia would not be the first to resume nuclear weapons tests, which would provoke an international backlash and make him more of a global pariah.
But his suspension of regular arms control talks between Washington and Moscow that are held under the treaty neuters the most important bilateral forum to ensure nuclear arms stability and predictability and to avoid the risk of a misunderstanding that could spark a catastrophic war.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Putin’s decision “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible” and reiterated Washington’s view that arms control talks should be sacrosanct. “We remain ready to talk about strategic arms limitations at any time with Russia irrespective of anything else going on in the world or in our relationship,” Blinken said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: “More nuclear weapons and less arms control makes the world more dangerous.”
Hours after Putin’s speech, Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced that the suspension “may be reversible” and said that Moscow would adhere to the treaty’s caps on nuclear missiles and inform Washington about launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles.
Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly, which includes both houses of parliament, offered little that was new, echoing the resentment and conspiracy theories that have punctuated his addresses throughout the past year, asserting that Russia is victim of a centuries-old Western plot to destroy Russia, and accusing the United States of direct involvement in Ukrainian attacks on Russian strategic military air bases.
Putin thumbed his nose at Washington’s complaint last month that Russia was in breach of its New START obligation to allow weapons inspections, blaming the United States for the collapse in relations between Russia and the West. “Now they want to examine our defense facilities, do they? That sounds absurd under the circumstances of the ongoing confrontation,” Putin said.
Putin’s move cements Russian lack of compliance with the treaty even before its invasion of Ukraine, having rebuffed arms control talks under New START since 2021 and nuclear arms inspections since 2020.
With relations between Washington and Moscow in the deep freeze and Western economic sanctions likely to continue indefinitely over Russia’s war on Ukraine, the prospects for Russia to resume its participation in the treaty appear bleak in the foreseeable future.
Putin’s explicit linking of Russian cooperation in the field of nuclear arms control to Washington’s support for Ukraine builds on months of nuclear saber-rattling by Russian officials seeking to weaken Western unity and curtail weapons deliveries to Kyiv.
The move came at a symbolic moment, nearly a year after Putin announced his invasion and a day after President Biden’s stunning show of support for Ukraine: He visited Kyiv and walked the streets of the Ukraine capital with President Volodymyr Zelensky as air raid sirens blared.
Jon B. Wolfsthal, senior adviser to Global Zero, an international movement to reduce nuclear dangers, and a member of the board that sets the Doomsday Clock predicted “hard times ahead for stability and nuclear restraint,” in comments on Twitter.
Putin left unclear whether Russia was halting all information exchanges and notifications. If so, this would “fundamentally change the nuclear relationship with Russia,” Wolfsthal added. “Putin’s move is political, not military. He seeks to unsettle NATO allies and stoke fears of broader war because he is losing in Ukraine,” he wrote.
Pro-Kremlin analysts such as Sergei Markov insist that Russia will prevail because, as he remarked on Telegram on Tuesday, “nuclear powers don’t lose wars.”
But as Putin railed about Ukrainian neo-Nazis and Russia’s Western enemies to his somber audience, liberally scattered with military men wearing glittering medals, he seemed to turn the clock back to the oppressive and stagnant Soviet years.
His audience offered frequent applause and dutiful standing ovations, and at one point he called on them to stand in silence to commemorate the Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine. How long the war will last and how many more will die, however, went unaddressed.
Mary Ilyushina in Riga contributed to this report.