Putin’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has repeated threats that Russia would be prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend annexed Ukrainian territories.
Russia’s top diplomat was addressing the UN General Assembly and the world’s media in New York yesterday, amid condemnation of referendums being held in four eastern Ukrainian regions aimed at annexing territory it has taken by force.
Kyiv said residents were being coerced into voting and were not allowed to leave the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions during the four-day vote, which Western nations dismissed as a sham designed to justify an escalation of the seven-month old war.
‘Following those referendums, Russia of course will respect the expression of the will of those people who for many long years have been suffering from the abuses of the neo-Nazi regime,’ Mr Lavrov said at a news conference after he addressed the assembly.
Asked if Russia would have grounds for using nuclear weapons to defend annexed regions of Ukraine, Mr Lavrov said Russian territory, including territory ‘further enshrined’ in Russia’s constitution in the future, ‘is under the full protection of the state.’
‘All of the laws, doctrines, concepts and strategies of the Russian Federation apply to all of its territory,’ he said, also referring specifically to Russia’s doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons.
The comments came after an explicit warning on Thursday by former President Dmitry Medvedev, an ally of Vladimir Putin, that any weapons in Moscow’s arsenal could be used to defend territories incorporated into Russia.
That includes ‘strategic nuclear weapons’ such as Putin’s giant new Sarmat missile, Mr Medvedev said, and ‘weapons based on new principles’ – likely a reference to hypersonic technology that the Kremlin claims is invulnerable to air defences.
‘The Western establishment [and] all citizens of the NATO countries need to understand that Russia has chosen its own path. There is no way back,’ he added.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Lavrov’s comments, and Putin’s earlier statement when he said he was not bluffing about using nuclear weapons, were ‘irresponsible’ and ‘absolutely unacceptable.’
‘Ukraine won’t give in. We call on all nuclear powers to speak out now and make it clear to Russia that such rhetorics put the world at risk and will not be tolerated,’ Mr Kuleba wrote on Twitter.
Mikhailo Podolyak, a key advisor to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, said nuclear-armed states needed to stop Russia acting on threats to nuke the second-largest European country.
Mr Podolyak told The Telegraph: ‘Vladimir Putin has gone to war against a non-nuclear state. He can’t win a conventional war so he threatens to use nuclear weapons.
‘If he gets away with it, every non-nuclear state will say: “I’m going to get the bomb”.’
He continued: ‘Nuclear weapons will be the only guarantee for national defence. Or, on the contrary: it will be shown you can use the bomb aggressively.
‘At that point it is not our problem. It is a global problem. It is a problem for the world’s nuclear powers. It is the end of nuclear deterrence.’
At yesterday’s General Assembly Mr Lavrov also attempted to justify Russia’s February invasion of its neighbour, repeating Moscow’s false claims that the elected government in Kyiv was illegitimately installed, filled with neo-Nazis and oppressed Russian speakers in the country’s east.
Mr Lavrov also sought to portray opposition to Russia’s war in Ukraine as limited to Washington and countries under its influence. Russia has been trying to overcome its international isolation since nearly three-quarters of the General Assembly voted to reprimand Moscow in March.
Russia’s strategic partner China has been firmly on the fence, criticising Western sanctions against Russia but stopping short of endorsing or assisting in the military campaign. In a surprise acknowledgement, Putin last week said China’s leader Xi Jinping had concerns about Ukraine.
When asked if Russia was coming under any pressure from China to end the war, Lavrov said: ‘You may tell your readers, listeners, viewers that I avoided to answer your question.’
Asked whether he could foresee future talks with the United States to make Russia feel more secure about what it calls NATO encroachment, Lavrov said it was the West that had broken off previous discussions.
His U.S. counterpart Secretary of State Antony Blinken cut off talks on the eve of the invasion, saying Russia’s movement of forces on Ukraine’s border was a ‘wholesale rejection of diplomacy’.
‘We’re not saying no to contacts. And when proposals to that effect come in, we agree. If our partners want to meet quietly so nobody finds out about it that’s fine because it’s always better to talk than not to talk,’ Lavrov said. ‘But in the present situation, Russia is quite simply not going to make the first step.’
Meanwhile Ukraine has requested an urgent UN Security Council meeting over the sham referendums, calling for Russia to be ‘held accountable for its further attempts to change Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders in a violation of the UN Charter,’ foreign affairs ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko said on Twitter.
Kremlin officials, military police and hired guns have been keeping a careful eye over the voting, which started on Friday- with Ukrainian politicians reporting that they were kicking front doors in to force people to cast their ballots.
Serhiy Haidai, governor of occupied Luhansk, said some towns under Russian occupation have been entirely sealed off to ensure people vote – with any crosses in the ‘no’ column recorded in a ‘notebook’.
Meanwhile state media reported an unfeasibly high 97 per cent of people in two of those regions – Donetsk and Luhansk – are in favour of joining Russia.
Ballot boxes have also been opened across Russia itself, ostensibly to allow displaced Ukrainians to vote, but in reality offer more opportunities for vote rigging.
Western leaders have declared the referenda to be a sham, saying they have no legitimacy while urging other governments not to recognise the results.