U.S. and Ukrainian officials said Sunday that they take Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats of nuclear war seriously, as fears mount that Russia’s recent military defeats in Ukraine could lead Mr. Putin to dramatically escalate the conflict.
With the war now in its seventh month and Russia’s ground invasion stalled, Mr. Putin and his inner circle are increasingly talking about their country’s nuclear stockpile, the world’s largest.
Russian officials in the past have made veiled references to nuclear weapons, but leaders and national security insiders across the U.S. and Europe say Ukraine’s recent successes on the battlefield, along with growing frustration inside Russia toward Mr. Putin and the war effort, make it more likely that the Kremlin could take dangerous, desperate actions to turn the tide.
“It is a matter that we have to take deadly seriously because it is a matter of paramount seriousness: the possible use of nuclear weapons for the first time since the Second World War,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CBS’s “Face the Nation” program on Sunday. “We have communicated directly, privately, at very high levels to the Kremlin, that any use of nuclear weapons will be met with catastrophic consequences for Russia, that the United States and our allies will respond decisively. And we have been clear and specific about what that will entail.
“We have, in public, been equally clear, as a matter of principle, that the United States will respond decisively if Russia uses nuclear weapons and that we will continue to support Ukraine in its efforts to defend its country and defend its democracy,” Mr. Sullivan said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy echoed those warnings. He said he thinks Mr. Putin is deadly serious about nuclear weapons and warned that the Kremlin will lean heavily on “nuclear blackmail” as Russian troops lose more ground in the war.
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“Now, it could be a reality,” he told “Face the Nation.”
“He wants to scare the whole world,” Mr. Zelenskyy said of Mr. Putin. “These are the first steps of his nuclear blackmail. I don’t think he’s bluffing. I think the world is deterring it and containing this threat. We need to keep putting pressure on him and not allow him to continue.”
Russia is pressing ahead with so-called referendums in four Ukrainian provinces on the question of formally joining the federation. The provinces include Luhansk and Donetsk, which together make up the disputed Donbas region, now the epicenter of the war.
The Biden administration has dubbed the votes a sham, and Western governments have made clear that they will not recognize the results of the referendums. The four provinces, they say, remain in Ukraine and will be recognized as such.
Russian officials appear poised to use the votes as new justifications for their aggression. On the heels of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Saturday that Moscow will honor the results of the referendums and each territory will be afforded full protection by the Russian government.
“The entire territory of the Russian Federation, which is confirmed and can be further confirmed in the Russian Constitution, is certainly under the state’s full protection,” Mr. Lavrov said. “All laws, doctrines, concepts, strategies of the Russian Federation apply to its entire territory.”
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Under such a policy, Moscow could declare that Ukraine is essentially attacking Russian territory, perhaps laying the groundwork for a tactical nuclear strike.
Mr. Putin used a brief address last week to announce a mobilization of Russian reserve forces and to threaten nuclear strikes.
“Those who are attempting to blackmail us with nuclear weapons must be aware that the prevailing winds may also turn towards their side,” Mr. Putin said, according to the state-run Tass news agency.
“Russian citizens must be confident: The territorial integrity of our motherland, our independence and freedom will be ensured. Let me stress it again: This will be ensured by all of our available means,” he said.
Adding to the volatile environment is pressure on Mr. Putin after Russian battlefield defeats. In some parts of Ukraine, the counteroffensive resulted in a “rout” of Russian forces, a major embarrassment for a military that was regarded as one of the world’s best, U.S. military officials have said.
Those defeats have led to unprecedented criticism of Mr. Putin, including a petition from municipal officials calling on him to step down. In addition, hundreds of Russian protesters were reportedly arrested last week as mass demonstrations broke out against the military call-up.
The Ukrainian military seized on those reports Sunday to taunt its invader. In a mashup video posted on Twitter, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense mocked the Russian military and showed footage of Russian police officers purportedly beating protesters.
“We understand that not all Russian troops are like this; Russia still has remnants of a professional army that [Ukraine] hasn’t yet destroyed,” the Twitter post reads. “We also know that soon these ‘soldiers’ will be at the front, and with such a love for alcohol, it will be easier for them to die on our land.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.