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Putin warns of nuclear war if NATO sends troops to Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual state of the nation address at the Gostiny Dvor conference center in central Moscow on Thursday.
Alexander Nemenov
/
AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual state of the nation address at the Gostiny Dvor conference center in central Moscow on Thursday.

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state of the nation address on Thursday, issuing explicit nuclear threats to the West even as he assured Russians their country could both emerge victorious from the war in Ukraine and thrive economically at home.

The Kremlin billed the speech as akin to a campaign platform reveal — no less than Putin's vision for Russia's future ahead of a March election in which he faces no serious competition for a fifth term in office.

But the Kremlin leader made no mention of the vote, as he blended belligerence with optimism in a sprawling, two-hour-plus speech before Russia's Federal Assembly that in its opening moments touched most heavily on the now 2-year-old war in Ukraine.

Putin warned that if Ukraine's Western backers deepened their involvement in the war, such as sending troops, the consequences for the "invaders" would be "tragic" and it would risk starting a nuclear war.

"They must realize that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory," Putin said, in apparent reference to increasingly lethal Western weapons provided to Kyiv. "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."

The remarks came just days after French President Emmanuel Macron said Western countries should not rule out deploying ground troops in Ukraine. NATO allies, including the United States, publicly rejected the suggestion.

Putin denied recent U.S. accusations that Russia intends to launch nuclear weapons into space, calling the accusations U.S. "demagoguery" and an American election-year stunt designed to lure Russia into arms negotiations talks.

He also accused the West of deliberately drawing the Soviet Union into a self-depleting arms race — and vowed Russia would play it smarter this time around.

"Our task is to develop a military industrial complex in a way that increases the scientific, technological and industrial potential of the country," Putin said.

Domestic issues and a Russian version of the GI bill

As he has in the past, Putin touted the Russian economy's ability to withstand Western sanctions over the war — praising a decade-long government effort to buffer the Russian market even as he acknowledged there was much work still to be done.

The Kremlin leader unveiled a list of long-term goals, from increasing the national birthrate and workers' wages to improving outputs in agriculture and industry. It felt at times like an echo of the five-year economic plans much touted but rarely implemented in the heyday of the USSR.

Much of the address was dedicated to a slew of new government programs aimed at improving Russians' lives — with Putin promising more money for families, children, schools and small-to-midsize businesses.

Putin also announced a program akin to the U.S. GI Bill for Russian veterans of the war in Ukraine, calling them the country's "new elite," destined to fill the future ranks of business and government.

If there were concerns over how Russia's government could afford both the war and social spending, they were left unsaid.

Applause from increasingly fidgety dignitaries kept coming.

The fight for a silent majority

As he has throughout the conflict, Putin insisted Russians had united behind the war effort, despite growing evidence of divisions and war fatigue.

A family watches a TV broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual state of the nation address in Moscow on Thursday.
Yuri Kadobonov / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
A family watches a TV broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual state of the nation address in Moscow on Thursday.

One anti-war politician who was gaining popularity toward a campaign for the presidential election was disqualified by the electoral commission, which said there were irregularities in signatures gathered to get his name on the ballot.

The death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny under mysterious circumstances in a remote Russian prison colony this month has drawn only further global attention to government repression of anti-war sentiment.

And families of civilians mobilized for the war effort in 2022 have also grown increasingly vocal with calls to bring their loved ones home from the front.

It appears they are not alone.

A new independent poll suggests that a large majority of Russians — 75% — would endorse Putin signing a peace agreement "tomorrow."

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