Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual state of the nation address at the Gostiny Dvor conference centre in central Moscow on February 29, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed on Thursday to fulfill Moscow’s goals in Ukraine and sternly warned the West against deeper involvement in the fighting, saying that such a move is fraught with the risk of a global nuclear conflict.

Putin’s warning came in a state-of-the-nation address ahead of next month’s election he’s all but certain to win, underlining his readiness to protect Russian gains in Ukraine.

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In an apparent reference to French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement earlier this week that the future deployment of Western ground troops to Ukraine should not be “ruled out”,

Putin warned that it would lead to “tragic” consequences for the countries who decide to do that.

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Putin noted that while accusing Russia of plans to attack Nato allies in Europe, Western allies were “selecting targets for striking our territory and selecting the most efficient as they think striking assets and talking about the possibility of sending a Nato contingent to Ukraine.”

“We remember the fate of those who sent their troop contingents to the territory of our country,” the Russian leader said. “Now the consequences for the potential invaders will be far more tragic.”

Here are highlights from his speech, which was delivered to members of both houses of parliament, state officials, military commanders and soldiers.
WAR IN UKRAINE: “Today, when our homeland is defending its sovereignty and security and protecting the lives of our fellow countrymen in Donbas and Novorossiya (regions of Ukraine that Russia claims to have annexed), the decisive role in this righteous struggle belongs to our citizens, our unity, devotion to our native country and responsibility for its fate...
“We did not start this war in Donbas. As I have said many times, we will do everything to end it, to eradicate Nazism. To fulfill all the tasks of the special military operation. To protect the sovereignty and security of our citizens.”
“The combat capabilities of the armed forces have increased multifold. Our units firmly hold the initiative (in Ukraine).
They are confidently advancing in a number of operational directions, liberating new territories.”
DIALOGUE WITH WASHINGTON: “Russia is ready for dialogue with the United States of America on issues of strategic stability.”
“There have been more and more unsubstantiated accusations against Russia, for example that we are allegedly going to deploy nuclear weapons in space. Such innuendo, which is nothing but innuendo, is a ploy to draw us into negotiations on their terms, which are favourable only to the United States.”
“The words of today’s American authorities about their alleged interest in negotiations with us on strategic stability issues are demagoguery... they simply want to show their citizens and everyone else that they still rule the world.”
NATO TROOPS TO UKRAINE, RUSSIAN WESTWARD BUILDUP: “The West provoked the conflict in Ukraine, in the Middle East, in other regions of the world, and continues to lie, without any embarrassment, saying that Russia allegedly intends to attack Europe.” “There has been talk about the possibility of sending Nato military contingents to Ukraine ... the consequences for possible interventionists will be ... tragic.” “We also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory. All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilisation. Don’t they get that?” “It is seriously necessary to strengthen the groupings (of troops) in the western strategic direction to neutralise the threats associated with the next expansion of NATO to the east: taking Sweden and Finland into the alliance.”
MISSILES, NUKES, ARMS RACE: “Strategic nuclear forces are in a state of full readiness for guaranteed use.”
“The hypersonic dagger aircraft system has not only been put into service, but is also being used with high efficiency to hit particularly important targets in the course of the special military operation.”
“The hypersonic sea-based complex Zircon has also already been used in battle. The hypersonic units of the intercontinental range Avangard (and) the laser systems Peresvet are on combat duty. The tests of the Burevestnik unlimited-range cruise missile are being finalised. And the unmanned underwater vehicle Poseidon... The first mass-produced Sarmat heavy ballistic missiles have been delivered to the troops.”
“The West is trying to drag us into an arms race. They are trying to wear us down, to repeat the trick they succeeded (in pulling off) with the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
“Therefore, our task is to develop the defence-industrial complex ... (and) the scientific, technological and industrial potential of the country.”
RUSSIA’S SYSTEM AND THE WEST: “Russia’s political system is one of the pillars of the country’s sovereignty... We will not allow anyone to interfere in our internal affairs.” “The so-called West, with its colonial behaviour and habit of fomenting national conflicts around the world, seeks not just to hold back our development - instead of Russia, they want a dependent, declining, dying place where they can do whatever they want.”
RUSSIA’S ECONOMY: “Last year Russia’s economy grew at a rate higher than the world economy... Today, Russia is the largest economy in Europe in terms of gross domestic product in terms of purchasing power parity, and the fifth largest in the world.
“Today, the share of non-resource industries in the growth structure safely exceeds 90% ... the economy is becoming more complex, more technological and therefore much more sustainable.”
POVERTY AND SOCIAL SUPPORT: “The problem of poverty is still acute, it now directly affects more than 9% of the population. And among large families...the poverty rate is more than 30%.
“We need constant work to improve quality of life of families with children (and) support the birth rate. For this purpose, we will launch a new national project called ‘Family’.
“I propose additional help to subjects of the Federation where the birth rate is below the national average... By the end of 2030 we will allocate at least 75 billion roubles ($825.56 million) to such regions.”

Speaking before an audience of lawmakers and top officials, Putin said the West should keep in mind that “we also have the weapons that can strike targets on their territory, and what they are now suggesting and scaring the world with, all that raises the real threat of a nuclear conflict that will mean the destruction of our civilization.”

“Don’t they understand it?” he said, alleging that Western leaders are playing with options of deeper involvement in the conflict, as in a simulation. “Those people haven’t been through any tough challenges and they have forgotten what war means.”

The strong statement followed earlier warnings from Putin, who has issued frequent reminders of Russia’s nuclear might since he sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022 as he sought to discourage the West from expanding its military support for Kyiv.

Hypersonic missiles

Putin emphasized that Russia’s nuclear forces are in “full readiness,” saying that the military has deployed potent new weapons, some of them tested on the battlefield in Ukraine.

The Kremlin leader said they include the new Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile that has entered service with Russian nuclear forces, along with the Burevestnik atomic-powered cruise missile and the Poseidon atomic-powered, nuclear-armed drone, which are completing their tests.

He added that the Kinzhal and Zircon hypersonic missiles have proven their efficacy on the battlefield in Ukraine.

At the same time, he rejected Western leaders’ statements about the threat of a Russian attack on Nato allies in Europe as “ravings” and again dismissed Washington’s claim that Moscow was pondering the deployment of space-based nuclear weapons.

Putin charged that the US allegations were part of a ploy to draw Russia into talks on nuclear arms control on American terms even as Washington continues its efforts to deliver a “strategic defeat” to Moscow in Ukraine.

“Ahead of the US election, they just want to show their citizens, as well as others, that they continue to rule the world,” he said. “It won’t work.”

In his speech that focused heavily on economic and social issues ahead of the March 15-17 presidential vote, Putin argued that Russia was “defending its sovereignty and security and protecting our compatriots” in Ukraine, charging that the Russian forces have the upper hand in the fighting.

He hailed Russian soldiers and honoured those who were killed in fighting with a moment of silence.

Putin has repeatedly said that he sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022 to protect Russian interests and prevent Ukraine from posing a major security threat to Russia by joining Nato. Kyiv and its allies have denounced it as an unprovoked act of aggression.

The Russian leader has repeatedly signalled a desire to negotiate an end to the fighting but warned that Russia will hold onto its gains.

Putin, 71, who is running as an independent candidate in the March 15-17 presidential election, relies on the tight control over Russia’s political system that he has established during 24 years in power.

Prominent critics who could challenge him have either been imprisoned or are living abroad, while most independent media have been banned, meaning that Putin’s reelection is all but assured. He faces token opposition from three other candidates nominated by Kremlin-friendly parties represented in parliament.

Russia’s best-known opposition leader Alexei Navalny , whose attempt to run against Putin in 2018 was rejected, died suddenly in an Arctic prison colony earlier this month, while serving a 19-year sentence on extremism charges. Navalny’s funeral is set for Friday.