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Putin suspends nuclear treaty as he defends Ukraine invasion and chides the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin walking toward lectern
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to give his annual state-of-the-nation address in Moscow on Tuesday.
(Dmitry Astakhov / Kremlin Pool Photo)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Tuesday that Moscow was suspending its participation in the New START treaty — the last remaining nuclear arms-control pact with the U.S. — in a move that sharply ups the ante amid tensions with Washington over the war in Ukraine.

In his state-of-the-nation address, Putin also said that Russia should stand ready to resume nuclear weapons tests if the U.S. does so, a move that would end a global ban on nuclear weapons tests in place since Cold War times.

He also accused Western countries Tuesday of igniting and sustaining the war in Ukraine, dismissing any blame of Moscow almost a year after the Kremlin’s unprovoked invasion of its neighbor, which has killed tens of thousands of people.

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Explaining his decision to suspend Russia’s obligations under New START, Putin accused the U.S. and its NATO allies of openly declaring the goal of Russia’s defeat in Ukraine.

“They want to inflict a ‘strategic defeat’ on us and try to get to our nuclear facilities at the same time,” he said. “In this context, I have to declare today that Russia is suspending its participation in the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Arms” — the New START pact.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken deplored Putin’s move as “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible,” noting that “we’ll be watching carefully to see what Russia actually does.”

He added that the U.S. would “make sure that, in any event, we are postured appropriately for the security of our own country and that of our allies,” but he emphasized that “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.”

“I think it matters that we continue to act responsibly in this area,” Blinken told reporters on a visit to Greece. “It’s also something the rest of the world expects of us.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also voiced regret over Putin’s move, saying that “with today’s decision on New START, full arms-control architecture has been dismantled.”

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“I strongly encourage Russia to reconsider its decision and respect existing agreements,” he told reporters.

Putin argued that, even as the U.S. has pushed for the resumption of inspections of Russian nuclear facilities under the treaty, NATO allies had helped Ukraine mount drone attacks on Russian air bases hosting nuclear-capable strategic bombers.

The Russian military said that it shot down Soviet-built drones that struck two bomber bases deep inside Russia in December, but acknowledged that several servicemen were killed by debris, which also damaged some aircraft.

Putin on Tuesday mocked NATO’s statement urging Russia to allow the resumption of the U.S. inspections of Russian nuclear weapons sites as “some kind of theater of the absurd.”

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“The drones used for it were equipped and modernized with NATO’s expert assistance,” Putin said. “And now they want to inspect our defense facilities? In the conditions of today’s confrontation, it sounds like sheer nonsense.”

He said that a week ago he signed an order to deploy new land-based strategic missiles and asked: “Are they also going to poke their noses there?”

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The Russian leader also noted that NATO’s statement on New START raises the issue of British and French nuclear weapons that are part of the alliance’s nuclear capability but aren’t included in the U.S.-Russian pact.

“They are also aimed against us. They are aimed against Russia,” he said. “Before we return to discussing the treaty, we need to understand what are the aspirations of NATO members Britain and France and how we take into account their strategic arsenals that are part of the alliance’s combined strike potential.”

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Putin emphasized that Russia was suspending its involvement in New START but not entirely withdrawing from the pact.

The New START treaty, signed in 2010 by then-President Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers. The agreement envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.

Just days before the treaty was due to expire in February 2021, Moscow and Washington agreed to extend it for another five years.

Russia and the U.S. have suspended mutual inspections under New START since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Moscow last fall refused to allow their resumption, raising uncertainty about the pact’s future. Russia also indefinitely postponed a planned round of consultations under the treaty.

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The U.S. State Department has said that Russia’s refusal to allow the inspections “prevents the United States from exercising important rights under the treaty and threatens the viability of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control.” It noted that nothing prevents Russian inspectors from conducting inspections of U.S. facilities.

Putin on Tuesday challenged the U.S. assertion, alleging that Washington has rejected some Russian requests for visits to specific U.S. facilities.

“We aren’t allowed to conduct full-fledged inspections under the treaty,” he said. “We can’t really check anything on their side.”

He alleged that the U.S. was working on nuclear weapons and that some in the U.S. were pondering plans to resume nuclear tests banned under the global ban that took effect after the end of the Cold War.

“In this situation, Rosatom [Russia’s state nuclear agency] and the Defense Ministry must ensure readiness for Russian nuclear weapons tests,” Putin said. “We naturally won’t be the first to do it, but if the U.S. conducts tests, we will also do it. No one should have dangerous illusions that the global strategic parity could be destroyed.”

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In his long-delayed state-of-the-nation address, Putin cast Russia — and Ukraine — as victims of Western double-dealing and said that Russia, not Ukraine, was the one fighting for its very existence.

“We aren’t fighting the Ukrainian people,” Putin said, just days before the war’s first anniversary Friday. Ukraine “has become hostage of the Kyiv regime and its Western masters, which have effectively occupied the country.”

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The speech reiterated a litany of grievances that the Russian leader has frequently offered as justification for the widely condemned war and ignored international demands to pull back from occupied areas in Ukraine.

Observers are expected to scour Putin’s speech for signs of how he sees the conflict, which has become bogged down, and what tone he might set for the year ahead. The Russian leader vowed no military letup in Ukrainian territories he has illegally annexed, apparently rejecting any peace overtures to end a conflict that has reawakened fears of a new Cold War.

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Instead, he offered his version of recent history, discounting arguments by the Ukrainian government that it needed Western help to thwart a Russian military takeover.

“It’s they who have started the war,” Putin said of the West. “And we are using force to end it.”

He also accused Western nations of waging an attack on Russia’s economy with sanctions — but declared that they hadn’t “achieved anything and will not achieve anything.”

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