Putin warns West’s support for Ukraine risks triggering nuclear war

Russian president’s comments ‘unacceptable and inappropriate’, says EU

Vladimir Putin has said that western support for Ukraine risks triggering a global war, in his most explicit threat to use nuclear weapons since he ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

In his state of the nation speech on Thursday, the Russian president told the country’s political elite that claims his country intended to attack Europe were “nonsense”.

But he said any increase in western support for Ukraine “really risks a conflict using nuclear weapons, which means the destruction of all of civilisation”.

Referring to French president Emmanuel Macron’s refusal to rule out sending western troops to Ukraine this week, Mr Putin said Russia remembered “the fate of those who once sent their contingents to our country”.


“Now the consequences for possible interveners will be much more tragic,” he said. “We also have weapons that can strike targets on their territory.”

Mr Putin said that western supplies of advanced weaponry and the prospect of a Nato troop deployment risked provoking nuclear conflict. “They think this is some kind of game. They are blinded by their own superiority complex,” he said.

The EU on Thursday said Mr Putin’s threat with nuclear weapons was “absolutely unacceptable and inappropriate” as he was the one who started the war in Ukraine and “advancing instability in the wider region”.

Ahead of the Russian president’s expected re-election, “he is deceiving the nation” and reviving “repression that resembles Stalinist times”, said the European Commission.

The Kremlin had billed Mr Putin’s speech as a roadmap for the next six years of his rule ahead of Russia’s presidential elections in March. After 24 years in power, he faces no credible challengers, having quashed most opposition and outlawed dissent.

Pro-Kremlin cinema owners across the country held free screenings of the speech, which began at midday in Moscow and revealed how far the war in Ukraine and the strategic rivalry with the West has consumed Mr Putin’s attention.

“They need some dependent, declining, dying space where they can do whatever they want,” Mr Putin said of the West. “They want to do to Russia what they have done in many regions of the world, including Ukraine – to bring discord into our house and weaken us from the inside.”

Mr Putin confirmed Russia would beef up troop deployments on its border with Nato countries to “neutralise threats” created by Sweden and Finland joining the alliance following his invasion of Ukraine.

Although Mr Putin said Russia was prepared to hold arms control talks with the US, which have in effect collapsed since the full-scale invasion, he made it clear Russia was also interested in increasing its ability to strike western countries.

He boasted that the country’s nuclear forces were ready for use, and added that work would soon conclude on new weapons systems, which he has claimed are essentially impossible to shoot down.

“We are dealing with a state whose ruling circles are taking openly hostile actions against us,” said Mr Putin. “They are planning in all seriousness to discuss strategic stability with us while simultaneously, as they say themselves, trying to inflict a strategic defeat on us on the battlefield.”

Denying US claims that Russia plans to deploy a nuclear weapon in space, Mr Putin accused the West of trying to “drag us into an arms race, repeating the trick they played with the Soviet Union in the 1980s” when the USSR overspent on its military, hastening its collapse in 1991.

He said Russia would work to “create the outlines for equal and inseparable security in Eurasia”, adding that “without a sovereign, strong Russia, no stable world order is possible”.

William Alberque, a director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Mr Putin’s attempts at nuclear coercion were designed to scare the West into limiting its support for Kyiv at a crucial point in the war.

“He hopes by escalating threats, he can instil restraint or hesitation in western leaders making decisions on how to support Ukraine,” said Mr Alberque.

But Russian analysts said the frequency with which Mr Putin has resorted to nuclear threats risked making them less effective.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a Moscow-based senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that despite Mr Putin’s rhetoric, the Kremlin was wary of nuclear conflict.

“They do not want and are afraid of nuclear war,” he said, adding that “nuclear blackmail” had become pro forma for Mr Putin.

Kirill Rogov, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, said Mr Putin’s speech focused more on “the dangers and challenges that Russia can create in the nuclear sphere”. He said it was “aimed at creating incentives for the American side to negotiate”.

He added that Russia’s recent battlefield successes in Ukraine meant Mr Putin was less likely to consider the use of nuclear weapons than earlier in the war when setbacks meant “an existential threat to the Putin regime”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024