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Putin warns NATO of risk of nuclear confrontation over Ukraine

A model of a Soviet AN-602 thermonuclear aerial bomb also known as the Tsar Bomb, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever created and tested, sits at the Atom pavilion, a permanent exhibition centre designed to demonstrate Russia's main past and modern achievements of the nuclear power industry, at the All-Russia Exhibition Centre (VDNH) in Moscow on Dec. 6, 2023. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
March 01, 2024

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned of the potential for a nuclear confrontation over his war in Ukraine as he stepped up threats against the West for its support of Kyiv.

“There’s been talk of sending NATO military forces to Ukraine. We remember the fate of those who sent their forces to our country and this time the consequences for the potential interventionists will be far more tragic,” Putin told lawmakers and top officials in Moscow in his annual address to the Federal Assembly on Thursday.

Ukraine’s U.S. and European allies “have to understand that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory and that all this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons, and therefore the destruction of civilization,” Putin said, after listing new Russian strategic missiles that are being put into military service.

Much of Putin’s flagship speech amounted to his election manifesto for the March 15-17 vote that will prolong his almost quarter-century rule by another six years. That’s as Russian troops are advancing in Ukraine, which is struggling to supply its forces with ammunition while more than $60 billion in U.S. military aid is held up in Congress amid political disputes.

Europe is boosting defense production in response to Russia’s aggression. French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this week refused to rule out sending troops to Ukraine, an idea that was rebuffed by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

In language reminiscent of World War II, which is known in Russia as the “Great Patriotic War,” Putin opened his speech by praising the wartime contribution of citizens working around the clock at factories producing munitions and weapons for the army fighting in Ukraine.

“Everyone is playing their part for us to achieve victory,” said Putin, who reiterated that Russia remains committed to the goals of its February 2022 invasion.

The U.S. and its allies imposed fresh sanctions on Russia last week to mark two years since the war began. With defense spending helping to spur growth, Russia is gradually adapting to years of unprecedented measures that failed to collapse its economy.

Still, Putin has lost a big part of Russia’s monetary defenses. Some $300 billion of the central bank’s assets remain frozen abroad as the U.S. and Europe weigh measures to use the funds to help Ukraine.

Russia imposed capital controls to bolster the ruble, which has weakened nearly 18% against the dollar in the past year. The National Wellbeing Fund’s liquid assets have declined by almost half since the war began as the government taps reserves to try to shield the economy.

Inside Russia, the Kremlin has crushed dissent with the harshest crackdown in decades. The Feb. 16 death of Alexey Navalny, Putin’s most outspoken foe, in an Arctic prison camp dealt a severe blow to Russia’s opposition movement, whose leaders are mostly in exile or in prison.

Navalny’s funeral in Moscow announced for Friday offers potentially the most significant gauge of opposition support in the country since the war began.

Putin set out plans to boost spending on government support to mothers and on healthcare to help reverse Russia’s population decline and improve life expectancy in his next term. He pledged to raise salaries for teachers by 5,000 rubles ($55) per month from September, and to repair thousands of schools and kindergartens by 2030.

Putin, 71, is already the longest-serving Russian ruler since Josef Stalin. Under constitutional changes adopted in 2020, he’s eligible to run for two more terms to 2036, when he’ll be 83.


© 2024 Bloomberg L.P

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