In his first public speech since April 2021, Vladimir Putin suspended the New START treaty, first signed in April 2010, which limits nuclear expansion between Russia and the United States. The treaty was highly criticized by former President Trump, saying it was a bad deal for the United States and that it should have also encompassed China. In Putin’s State of the Union, delivered just three days before the one-year anniversary of his invasion of Ukraine, he claimed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “neo-nazi” in his ideology and denounced the West’s “perversion” and “spiritual catastrophe.” He further claimed that Russia’s “special military operation” of Ukraine, which began a full-scale militaristic invasion last year, was the result of exhausting all possible peaceful resolutions with Ukraine. He claimed that the Western powers did not allow Ukraine to accept Russia’s peaceful resolution propositions.
By Frances Martel; February 21, 2023
Russian leader Vladimir Putin announced in a nearly two-hour speech on Tuesday the unilateral suspension of the longstanding New START agreement that limits American and Russian nuclear development, describing Western support for Ukraine amid an ongoing Russian invasion as an existential threat to Russia.
Putin also took the time to reiterate his claim that the administration of current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “neo-Nazi” in its ideology and to denounce “perversion” and “spiritual catastrophe” in the West, spending particular time condemning the Anglican Church for allegedly considering “the idea of a gender-neutral God.”
The Russian leader made his remarks during his State of the Nation address, which the Russian constitution requires him to deliver annually. Putin has not delivered the speech for nearly two years, however, since April 2021, and had announced a delay in public appearances – including postponing his traditional end-of-year marathon press conference in December – late last year.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine – which began in 2014 but escalated through a “special military operation” announced on February 24, 2022, to a full-scale national attack on the country, took up most of Putin’s speaking time. Putin insisted that his administration “did everything possible, really everything possible to solve this problem by peaceful means,” but Western powers did not allow Ukraine to accept such a resolution. He did not appear to include Russia’s invasion and colonization of Crimea in 2014, which received no significant response from the administration of then-President Barack Obama, in his analysis of the ongoing invasion of the country.
“I want to repeat this: it was they who unleashed the war, and we used force to stop it,” Putin asserted.
Putin used his speech to announce an end to the New START agreement, a treaty passed under Obama.
“I am forced to announce today that Russia is suspending its participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty,” he declared, accusing the United States and the greater West of attempting to eliminate the existence of Russia as a whole.
“The West uses Ukraine as a ram against Russia,” Putin said.
“The Western elite does not conceal their goal, which is to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia. It means to finish us forever and grow a local conflict into global opposition,” Putin warned. “This is exactly how we understand it all and we will react accordingly, because in this case we are talking about the existence of our country.”
New START took effect in February 2011 and, under a proposal by President Joe Biden eagerly embraced in Moscow, extended through 2026. The deal limits the number of nuclear weapons both sides can deploy and forced the U.S. and Russia to, at least on paper, maintain an equal number of strategic nuclear weapons. As described by the State Department, the treaty requires limits of:
- 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments;
- 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments (each such heavy bomber is counted as one warhead toward this limit);
- 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.
President Donald Trump was a stern critic of the New START agreement, reportedly raising the issue in his first call with Putin as president in 2017 and publicly demanding a new agreement that also includes China. Both China and Russia enthusiastically rejected including China in the proposal.
“It’s a one-sided deal like all other deals we make. It’s a one-sided deal. It gave them things that we should have never allowed,” Trump said in 2017. “Just another bad deal that the country made, whether it’s START, whether it’s the Iran deal, which is one of the bad deals ever made. Our country only made bad deals, we don’t make good deals. So we’re going to start making good deals.”
During the years that Trump failed to negotiate a new agreement including China, Beijing capitalized on not being tethered to any limits by dramatically increasing its nuclear stockpile, particularly at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
China has refused to officially take sides in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, insisting publicly on dialogue to resolve the war but vocally condemning sanctions on Russia for its invasion. Russia is arguably China’s closest geopolitical ally, but Ukraine is also a friendly nation and member of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a Chinese debt-trap program it uses to erode the sovereignty of poor nations.
European countries and the United States began expressing concerns this week that China would soon begin providing weapons to Russia. During a meeting with top Chinese Politburo member Wang Yi this weekend, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said he expressed “strong concern” about potential weapons sales.
“I asked him not to do that, and expressing not only our concern, but the fact that for us, it would be a red line in our relationship,” Borrell reportedly said. “He told me that they’re not going to do it, that they don’t plan to do it.”
Putin claimed in his speech on Tuesday that American government officials were considering restarting nuclear tests, necessitating the suspension of the agreement. He did not name any officials allegedly considering this or offer any evidence for his allegation.
“In this situation, [in the wake of the ideas in the United States to conduct nuclear weapon tests], the Defense Ministry of Russia and Rosatom should be ready for testing Russian nuclear weapons,” Putin declared. “Naturally, we will not be the first to do that but if the United States conducts the tests, we will also carry them out.”
Elsewhere in his remarks, Putin bemoaned the “spiritual catastrophe” of the West.
“They distort historical facts and constantly attack our culture, the Russian Orthodox Church, and other traditional religions of our country,” Putin claimed. “Look at what they do with their own peoples: the destruction of the family, cultural and national identity, perversion, and the abuse of children are declared the norm. And priests are forced to bless same-sex marriages.”
“As it became known, the Anglican Church plans to consider the idea of a gender-neutral God … Millions of people in the West understand they are being led to a real spiritual catastrophe,” he claimed.
Putin has taken to raising social and religious issues during remarks about Ukraine, without offering any direct connection. During his remarks in September announcing the “annexation” of four regions of Ukraine – Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk” – Putin called Western countries “Satanic.”
“The destruction of this Western hegemony is irreversible,” he insisted at the time.