Putin says NATO is preparing to attack Russia - and warns aggression risks nuclear conflict

Russia must be "properly protected" after the expansion of NATO to include Sweden and Finland, Vladimir Putin has said in an annual state-of-the-nation speech.

NATO forces are "preparing to strike our territory", he claimed, but he warned any such move - including sending troops to Ukraine - could trigger the use of nuclear weapons.

He was referencing an idea floated by French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday, of NATO members sending ground troops to Ukraine - a suggestion rejected by the US, Germany and UK.

Ukraine-Russia war latest: Putin says Russia will protect itself with nuclear weapons

"(Western nations) must realise that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory," Mr Putin said.

"All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilisation. Don't they get that?"

Visibly angry, Mr Putin suggested Western politicians recall the fate of those who unsuccessfully invaded his country in the past, like Adolf Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte.

"But now the consequences will be far more tragic," he said. "They think it (war) is a cartoon."

Focusing the first parts of his speech on Russia's place in the world, he hit out at Western countries, who he said think they are "supreme".

"Russophobia blinds people and deprives them of their rational faculties," he said, adding suggestions Russian forces might attack other European countries was "nonsense".

He had also denied any intention to attack Ukraine before the invasion began in February 2022.

Mr Putin made the remarks during his address to the Russian parliament and other members of the country's elite ahead of a presidential election he is all but certain to win between 15-17 March.

"Without Russia there is no solid peace in the world," he said.

The Russian leader said Moscow is ready for dialogue with the US on strategic stability, but rejected any attempts to force Russia into talks.

He dismissed "unsubstantiated accusations" that Russia could be deploying nuclear weapons in space, claiming such "innuendo" only favours the US.

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But he did elaborate on the use of "advanced weapons systems", like Zircon hypersonic missiles, in Ukraine, where he said Russia holds the military advantage.

The invasion of Ukraine - which he still described as a "special military operation" - was supported by the "absolute majority" of Russian people from the "very beginning", he said.

Moving on from the war in Ukraine, Mr Putin focused much of his speech on domestic issues, addressing the country's low birth rate and economic performance among other matters.

He proposed higher child benefits and other measures to support large families, with Russia's low birth rate posing demographic problems for authorities for many years.

The country will also soon be among the four largest economic powers in the world, he claimed.