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Putin Says Direct Western Intervention in Ukraine Risks a Nuclear Conflict

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said the West faced the prospect of nuclear conflict if it intervened more directly in the war in Ukraine, using an annual speech to the nation on Thursday to escalate his threats against Europe and the United States.

Mr. Putin said Western countries that were helping Ukraine strike Russian territory “must, in the end, understand” that “all this truly threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons, and therefore the destruction of civilization.”

“We also have weapons that can strike targets on their territory,” Mr. Putin said. “Do they not understand this?”

The Russian leader cited comments by President Emmanuel Macron of France this week raising the possibility of sending troops from NATO countries to Ukraine, a scenario the Kremlin said would lead to the “inevitability” of a direct conflict between Russia and the Western alliance.

The United States and other Western governments have largely tried to distance themselves from Ukrainian strikes on Russian territory, and Mr. Macron’s remarks about the possibility of Western troops being sent to Ukraine drew quick rebukes from other Western officials, who have ruled out such deployments.

Mr. Putin, however, considers Russian-occupied Ukraine to be Russian territory, and he seized on Mr. Macron’s remarks to amplify his threat. “We remember the fate of those who once sent their contingents to the territory of our country,” Mr. Putin said, an apparent reference to the invasions of Hitler and Napoleon. “But now the consequences for potential interventionists will be much more tragic.”

Mr. Putin’s threats on Thursday came in the opening minutes of his annual state-of-the-nation speech, a keystone event in the Kremlin calendar in which the president declares his plans and priorities in a televised address to hundreds of officials, lawmakers and other members of Russia’s ruling elite.

This year, the speech took on added significance because of Russia’s presidential elections, scheduled for March 15-17, in which Mr. Putin is running for another six-year term. He is assured of winning, but the Kremlin has mounted a concerted publicity campaign ahead of the vote, seeking to use it as a stamp of public approval for Mr. Putin’s rule, and by extension, his war.

The speech came at a geopolitically delicate time: More than two years into the war, Russia has taken the initiative on the battlefield, military aid is stalled in the U.S. Congress, and Western governments are at odds over how best to support Ukraine.

At home, Mr. Putin is showing no sign of slowing his crackdown on the opposition, which suffered a crushing blow with the death of its imprisoned leader, Aleksei A. Navalny.

“Russia’s political system is one of the foundations of the country’s sovereignty,” Mr. Putin said in his speech, suggesting he would continue to stifle what he casts as Western-organized dissent. “We will not let anyone interfere in our domestic affairs.”

Mr. Putin has repeatedly made veiled nuclear threats against the West since he launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, seeking to leverage Russia’s enormous nuclear arsenal to deter Europe and the United States from supporting Ukraine.

He had appeared to dial down that rhetoric in the past year. But on Thursday, he returned to it, coupling his threats with a claim that he was ready to resume arms-control negotiations with the United States — but only, he suggested, if Washington was ready to discuss the war in Ukraine as well.

“Russia is ready for a dialogue with the United States on matters of strategic stability,” Mr. Putin said, a reference to arms-control talks with Washington that had been briefly underway before Russia’s invasion.

In an apparent reference to Ukraine, Mr. Putin added: “This must, naturally, be done only as a single complex, including all those aspects that affect the security of our country.”

The White House, for its part, has rebuffed Mr. Putin’s efforts to put the United States at the center of any negotiations about the war in Ukraine. American officials have said that the United States has not and will not negotiate on behalf of Ukraine.

Mr. Putin’s threats against the West took up only a few minutes of a speech that lasted more than two hours. Much of the address focused on bread-and-butter domestic issues like highways, health care, energy infrastructure and education.

But Mr. Putin framed all those domestic priorities as being contingent on the success of his invasion of Ukraine, which the Kremlin refers to as the “special military operation.” He offered no new details on the war’s goals or how it might end, saying only that Russia aimed to “root out Nazism” — a reference to his frequent, false claims about Ukraine being run by “Nazis.”

“I will underline the most important thing,” Mr. Putin said at the end of his speech. “The fulfillment of all the targeted plans today depends directly on our soldiers, officers, volunteers — all the military personnel fighting right now on the front.”

It was a signal that Mr. Putin intends to use his March re-election to portray Russia as committed to the war, with the overwhelming majority of the public behind it. Mr. Putin described the war’s soldiers and supporters as Russia’s “true elite,” and unveiled a training program and other measures meant to elevate veterans to management positions in civilian life.

“They should take on leading roles in the education system, the upbringing of the youth, and in public associations, state companies, business and state and local governance,” Mr. Putin said, referring to veterans of his Ukraine invasion. “They should head regions, companies and, ultimately, the biggest domestic projects.”

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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