TALLINN – Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview broadcast Sunday that after Russia suspended its participation in the last arms control agreement with Washington, it would “take into account” the nuclear weapons capabilities not only of the United States but of other NATO countries such as France and Britain.
Putin had said in a speech suspending Russia's role in the 2010 New START treaty earlier this week that France and Britain, not parties to the agreement, had joined the United States in targeting Russia with nuclear weapons. In an interview with Russian TV that was recorded Wednesday and broadcast Sunday, he said he took the action to "preserve our country, ensure security and strategic stability" and added:
“In today’s conditions, when all the leading NATO countries have declared their main goal to inflict a strategic defeat on us, to make our people suffer ... how can we not take into account their nuclear capabilities? Moreover, they supply weapons to Ukraine worth tens of billions of dollars.”
Putin was repeating his common theme that the West is bent on destroying Russia and that his one-year-old fight in Ukraine is part of a battle for Russia's very survival. He argued a year ago that his overarching goal in invading Ukraine was to reduce what he perceived as threats to Russia's security and has since cited those as justification for potentially using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
As Western military aid poured into the invaded country, the Russian leader and his foreign minister have portrayed the war as a de facto fight between Russia and not just Ukraine but NATO. Ukraine's allies have emphasized they want to avoid becoming direct fighting parties in the war while equipping Ukraine to defend itself and to retake Russian-captured territory.
CIA Director William Burns said Sunday that the real issue behind the invasion is Putin's loss of control over Ukraine and the country's rise as an independent, democratic state aligned with the West.
“He’s seen that as a direct threat to the ambition that cuts to the core of his view as a Russian leader, and I think that’s the backdrop to the horrific aggression that he’s launched,” Burns said on CBS' “Face the Nation.”
New START is the last remaining arms control agreement between Moscow and Washington. In suspending his country's participation, Putin said Russia can’t accept U.S. inspections of its nuclear sites while Washington and its NATO allies seek Russia’s defeat in Ukraine. The Russian president emphasized that Moscow was not withdrawing from the pact, and the Russian Foreign Ministry said the country would respect the treaty's caps on nuclear weapons and continue notifying the U.S. about test launches of ballistic missiles.
In the interview with Russian TV, Putin didn't elaborate on how he would “take into account” the nuclear arsenals of NATO countries beyond those of the United States but indicated he was open to “discussion of this topic from the center of the field.”
Putin also used the interview to allege that the West wants to break up Russia, a notion that he has repeatedly used to justify Russian aggression in Ukraine. “They have one goal: to disband the former Soviet Union and its fundamental part — the Russian Federation,” Putin said.
Appealing to his citizenry's nationalistic sentiments, Putin predicted that if the West succeeds in destroying Russia and establishing control, Russians may not survive as a distinct ethnic group.
“There will be Muscovites, some kind of people from the Urals, and so on,” he said of Russia’s possible fragmentation into regional groupings. The West could only partly accept Russia into the so-called “family of civilized peoples,” breaking the country into separate pieces, he theorized.
Claiming threats to Russians' survival is a favorite Putin theme, and Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted in a recent interview with The Associated Press that “for him, it’s all about protection, and he believes that the Russian world has been attacked from the West, and Ukrainians are a part of this Russian world.”
Claiming the West and and not Russia provoked the war in Ukraine is also a favorite Putin topic that many Russians buy into, said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served in the past three U.S. presidential administrations.
“They think that this is a war of them yet again defending their territory, as it has been since time immemorial, since the Mongol invasion of having to deal with invaders when they are the ones that are doing the invading,” Hill said in a recent AP interview.
She added that Putin’s frequent references to nuclear weapons fit a pattern “of menacing the world on every nuclear frontier because he knows that that’s the ultimate psychological weapon. Nuclear weapons are pretty effective politically.”
U.S. President Joe Biden countered some of Putin's claims in a speech in Poland's capital, Warsaw, on Tuesday.
“The United States and the nations of Europe do not seek to control or destroy Russia. The West was not plotting to attack Russia, as Putin said today," Biden said. "And millions of Russian citizens who only want to live in peace with their neighbors are not the enemy."