President Vladimir Putin has used his annual state-of-the-nation speech to warn that Russia is prepared to respond harshly to any foreign provocations, as a rift between Moscow and the West widens.
Addressing top officials and legislators from both houses of the Russian parliament in the capital, Putin said his government strived to have good relations with other countries and hoped no foreign state would cross the Kremlin’s “red lines”.
“We want good relations … and really don’t want to burn bridges,” Putin said.
“But if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn down or even blow up these bridges, they should know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and harsh.”
“The organisers of any provocations against Russia will regret [their actions] in a way they never have before,” Putin warned.
His comments came as Russia-West relations plunge to post-Cold War lows, with fractures over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny and a continuing standoff over the simmering conflict in neighbouring Ukraine.
He however made no mention of Navalny despite his speech coming before planned protests across Russia by supporters of the jailed opposition politician.
Moscow has come under intense criticism from Western powers, including the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union, since the beginning of the year over its handling of Navalny’s case.
Moreover, Ukraine, its Western allies and NATO have accused Russia of engineering a “provocative” buildup of tens of thousands of troops along its shared border in the region as well as in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.
The Kremlin has denied playing any role in the conflict in Donbas and has described its troop movements along its western border with Ukraine and in Crimea as defensive, adding the military units will remain in position as long as Moscow sees fit.
The first half of his speech focused on Russia’s battle with Covid-19 – he praised the social solidarity of millions of people.
Putin said “vaccination is vital… there is no other way”, and urged all Russians to get vaccinated.
“In the autumn, we want to have achieved collective immunity,” he said.
During the pandemic Putin has largely remained at a residence just outside Moscow, so this is a rare appearance in public.