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A huge screen broadcasts Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual state of the nation address, in Moscow, on Feb. 29.OLGA MALTSEVA/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin used his annual speech to parliament to warn the West not to wade further into the war in Ukraine, saying there was a real risk of a nuclear conflict.

Mr. Putin was responding to comments this week from French President Emmanuel Macron, who said the NATO military alliance should not rule out sending ground troops into Ukraine. While other Western leaders quickly poured cold water on the idea, Mr. Putin further ratcheted up his rhetoric about a civilizational clash between his country and the West.

“We remember the fate of those who sent their contingents to the territory of our country,” he said, referring to the invasions of Russia launched by Hitler and Napoleon in past centuries. Mr. Putin claims to have annexed five regions of eastern and southern Ukraine, and sees them as Russian territory, even though the front line in Ukraine swerves through those regions and only Syria and North Korea recognized Russia’s illegal annexations.

“Now the consequences for the potential interventionists will be much more tragic,” he continued, alluding to his country’s large nuclear arsenal. “They should finally understand – and I just told them – that we too have weapons that can destroy targets on their territory.”

Mr. Putin, who ordered the invasion of Ukraine just over two years ago, said the West’s support for Kyiv “really risks a conflict using nuclear weapons, which means the destruction of all of civilization.”

The Russian President appeared to be ill on Thursday, coughing throughout his 128-minute address to the two houses of Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament. The subject of the 71-year-old’s health has been frequently speculated on, though the Kremlin has repeatedly insisted he is in good health.

Mr. Macron said on Monday that “while there is no consensus to officially back any ground troops” being sent to Ukraine, “nothing should be excluded.” It marked the first time a NATO leader had publicly mused about deploying Western troops into the fight.

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, though it has recently signed a series of bilateral security co-operation deals with member countries, including Canada, that commit those countries to continue supporting Ukraine with military and financial assistance.

NATO countries have provided Kyiv with vast amounts of weapons and money since the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. The flow of Western military assistance has slowed dramatically in recent months, however, just as Russia has been able to secure fresh supplies of artillery shells and rockets from its own allies, North Korea and Iran.

Mr. Putin said Russian troops were now on the advance inside Ukraine, a claim backed by Western and Ukrainian military analysts. Russian forces are taking advantage of the Ukrainian military’s severe shortages of artillery shells and other long-range weapons, as U.S. military aid remains held up by partisan wrangling in Congress.

Russia has followed up its mid-February capture of the city of Avdiivka, in the southeastern Donetsk region, by seizing several nearby villages. Mr. Putin’s troops have also recently made gains in the eastern region of Kharkiv and the southern region of Zaporizhzhia.

“Our armed forces now have the initiative. They are on the offensive in multiple directions, liberating new territories,” Mr. Putin said. He made no mention of seeking a negotiated solution.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Mr. Putin was intent on expanding his war against Ukraine. Writing on the social network X, Mr. Podolyak said Ukraine’s allies had to decide between accelerating their assistance to Kyiv “in order to inflict defeat today” or continuing “long conversations, doubts, thinking about ‘pacifying the creature’ and in the end to personally clash with the Russian army on their own territories.”

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said there was no choice but to take Mr. Putin’s threats seriously. “Europe must understand that the ‘arms race’ that Russia is imposing on the world obliges the West to wake up and prepare militarily for potential threats,” Mr. Tusk said, according to Poland’s news website.

The invasion of Ukraine, which the Kremlin expected it could conquer in a matter of days or weeks, is now in its third year. Russia does not publish data regarding its military losses, but a count conducted by two independent Russian media organizations, using publicly available information, concluded that at least 75,000 Russian combatants had died because of the war, as of the end of 2023.

Mr. Putin asked Russia’s assembled political elite to hold a minute of silence for those who had died over the course of what he still calls “the special military operation” in Ukraine, since Russia has not formally declared war on its neighbour. “The entire population is bowing down to your exploits. Russia will always remember its fallen heroes,” he said, adding that veterans of the conflict should be given leading positions in society afterward.

On Sunday, Mr. Zelensky told a news conference that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in action so far. Western estimates put the number of Ukrainian military deaths at closer to 70,000 through the first two years of the war, with Russian losses potentially as high as 120,000.

The number of civilian casualties is equally difficult to calculate, with journalists and other independent researchers unable to reach cities such as Mariupol that have been almost completely destroyed and which remain behind Russian lines. Satellite images suggest vast new cemeteries have been built in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.

In addition to being nationally televised in Russia, Mr. Putin’s speech – and key quotes from it – were broadcast through giant electronic billboards set up around Moscow and other cities. Kremlin-controlled media reported that the speech would also be shown in movie theatres.

Mr. Putin made no mention of Ukraine’s neighbour Moldova, or the pro-Russian region of Transnistria. On Wednesday, the parliament of the breakaway region appealed to Moscow for “protection” against what it says is mounting economic pressure applied by the Moldovan government. Russia has kept a small contingent of troops stationed in Transnistria since the end of a 1991-1992 civil war, spurring fears Mr. Putin would use his speech to stir up the frozen conflict there.

Mr. Putin delivered his address two weeks ahead of Russia’s presidential elections. The voting, which begins on March 15 and concludes on March 17, is less of an election than a recoronation that will return Mr. Putin to the Kremlin for yet another six-year term.

Mr. Putin, an ex-KGB agent who has ruled the country as president or prime minister since 1999, is running effectively unopposed and has not bothered to formally campaign. The only anti-war candidate, Boris Nadezhdin, was disqualified from the ballot, and the other three remaining candidates all say they support both Mr. Putin and the war in Ukraine.

The speech also came one day before Russia’s battered democracy movement is planning to hold a public funeral in Moscow for opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Mr. Navalny died Feb. 16 in an Arctic penal colony – where he was being held as punishment for his criticism of the Kremlin – under circumstances that remain unclear. His widow, Yulia Navalnaya, has accused Mr. Putin of being responsible for her husband’s death.

On Thursday, Moscow police were already patrolling the Borisovskoye cemetery, where Mr. Navalny is supposed to be buried. Photos posted to social media showed additional metal fences and CCTV cameras being set up in the area, with expectations that a large crowd will attend the ceremony. High school and university students in Moscow were shown videos informing them they could face jail terms of up to 10 years for attending unsanctioned gatherings.

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