MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday delivered a warning to the West over Ukraine by suspending a landmark nuclear arms control treaty, announcing that new strategic systems had been put on combat duty, and threatening to resume nuclear tests.
Nearly a year after ordering an attack that has triggered the biggest confrontation with the West in six decades, Putin said Russia would achieve its aims and accused the West of trying to destroy it.
“The elites of the West do not hide their purpose. But they also cannot fail to realise that it is impossible to defeat Russia on the battlefield,” he told his country’s political and military elite.
Alleging that the United States was turning the war into a global conflict, Putin said Russia was suspending participation in the New START treaty, its last major arms control treaty with Washington.
Signed by then-US president Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, the treaty caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads that the countries can deploy.
Due to expire in 2026, it allows each country to physically check the other’s nuclear arsenal, although tensions over Ukraine had already brought inspections to a halt.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Putin’s move “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible”. Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said it made the world a more dangerous place, and urged Putin to reconsider.
The Russian leader said, without citing evidence, that some in Washington were considering breaking a moratorium on nuclear testing.
“... if the United States conducts tests, then we will. No one should have dangerous illusions that global strategic parity can be destroyed,” Putin said.
“A week ago, I signed a decree on putting new ground-based strategic systems on combat duty.” It was not immediately clear which systems he meant.
Putin said Ukraine had sought to strike a facility deep inside Russia where it keeps nuclear bombers, a reference to the Engels air base.
Russia and the United States together hold 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear warheads.
The New START Treaty limited each side to 1,550 warheads on deployed missile launchers and heavy bombers. Both sides met the central limits by 2018.
Putin, who has over the past year repeatedly hinted that Russia could use a nuclear weapon if threatened, was in effect saying that he could dismantle the architecture of nuclear arms control unless the West backs off in Ukraine.
Putin said the conflict had been forced on Russia, particularly by Nato’s eastward expansion since the Cold War.
“The people of Ukraine have become the hostage of the Kyiv regime and its Western overlords, who have effectively occupied this country in the political, military and economic sense,” he said.