Russia’s top diplomat says the West is engaged in a proxy war with his country that could escalate into a global conflict with nuclear weapons, as Western countries step up their commitments to help Ukraine defend itself.
“The risks are serious, real. It should not be underestimated,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a Russian state television interview broadcast Monday evening. “Under no circumstances should a third world war happen,” he said, adding that “there are no winners in nuclear war.”
Lavrov said the West was increasing the risk of a bigger conflict by providing weapons to Ukraine: “NATO is, in effect, fighting with Russia through a proxy and arming that proxy.”
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking to reporters at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Tuesday, said “any bluff about the possible use of nuclear weapons is dangerous and unhelpful.”
Austin met defense officials from more than 40 countries in Germany on Tuesday and said the US and its allies would continue to meet Ukraine’s needs, adding that the stakes of the conflict “reach beyond Ukraine and even Europe.”
Comments from top US and Russian officials highlighted how both countries see the consequences of the war in Ukraine extending to a wider confrontation between Russia and the West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly raised the specter of nuclear war, using his country’s atomic weapons in a bid to prevent the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from engaging in conflict.
The West, meanwhile, has accelerated efforts to support Ukraine with new arms and ammunition supplies in a bid to thwart Russia, but the US and NATO have said they will not be deploying troops into direct combat.
Russia’s attempts to overthrow Ukraine’s elected government through a swift military invasion in late February failed, and Moscow is now focused on trying to seize territory in eastern Ukraine with the help of mass artillery and aerial bombardment. Russian units pushed southwest from the town of Izyum and attacked the village of Barvinskove, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Germany said it would renew and send to Ukraine a decommissioned anti-aircraft gun tank known as the Flakpanzer Gepard, or Cheetah, ending a long-standing reluctance to deliver tanks to the country. Germany will provide about 50 German-made self-propelled guns, marking a major shipment of non-Soviet weapons systems by a Western country to Ukraine, two government officials said.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last week said his government was treading carefully to avoid nuclear war.
Britain signaled a more aggressive stance towards Russia on Tuesday when a junior British defense minister, James Heappey, said it was “completely legal” for Ukraine to use Western weapons to attack logistics and supply lines in Russia.
For months, Britain has provided weapons with the proviso that they are used to defend Ukraine against Russian attacks, not offensives.
“The things that the international community is now giving to Ukraine have the range to be used across borders,” Mr. Heappey, who is the UK’s minister of the armed forces, told Times Radio on Tuesday. “That’s not necessarily a problem.”
Austin said Ukraine had received more than $5 billion in equipment to defend against Russian forces, including two US military aid packages worth $800 million each.
President Biden said the administration would soon submit a request to Congress for more funding for Ukraine.
Foreign Minister Antony Blinken testified on Tuesday of the government’s budget blueprint and told senators that “full funding is essential, in my judgment, to ensure that Russia’s war in Ukraine is a strategic failure for the Kremlin and a powerful lesson for those who are concerned about it.” might consider following his path.”
The day before, Austin said that the US aims to see Russia’s military capabilities decrease and Ukraine strengthened to prevent Moscow from trying to conquer the region by force in the future.
“We want to see Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do the things it did in invading Ukraine,” Austin said after he and Blinken became the top US officials to visit Ukraine. the capital of Kyiv since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Austin’s Tuesday meeting with defense ministers at Ramstein Air Base included Ukraine’s Oleksii Reznikov, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Topics on the agenda include updating officials on the latest intelligence from the battlefield in Ukraine, security assistance to Kyiv and strengthening NATO’s defense industrial base in the long term to support Ukraine’s defence, a defense official said.
Speaking after the conference, Austin said that US and European officials present agreed to meet monthly, either virtually or in person, to discuss ways to support Ukraine.
Russia, meanwhile, said it would halt gas flows to Poland and Bulgaria from Wednesday, the first time Moscow has followed through on threats to cut off countries not paying for their gas on new wartime terms.
On the diplomatic front, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres met Mr Putin and Lavrov in Moscow on Tuesday. After the meeting, Lavrov blamed the war on NATO’s expansion and said the West was trying to create an alternative global government outside the United Nations.
Guterres called for group-led humanitarian corridors, particularly in the southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, and for an immediate end to the war. Putin denied that there were any problems with the civilian evacuation, according to the state news agency Ria Novosti. The UN refugee agency now estimates that 8.3 million people will flee Ukraine by the end of the year, up from its forecast in early March.
Mr Guterres is scheduled to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on Thursday.
In a phone call Tuesday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Putin said the last remaining Ukrainian troops in Mariupol would be rescued and offered medical treatment if they surrendered to the occupying Russian forces, the Kremlin said. Ukrainian officials have claimed that there are up to 2,000 Ukrainian fighters and more than 1,000 civilians hiding in the Azovstal steel complex.
The Ukrainian army has not believed in such an offer since Russian troops opened fire on Ukrainian troops retreating from the besieged city in eastern Ukraine in 2014 under a negotiated agreement, killing more than 100 people.
Putin told Erdogan that Mariupol, which had suffered great death and destruction after two months of Russian shelling, was now completely under Russian control, the Kremlin said.
In his Monday evening interview, Lavrov said there was no progress in peace negotiations with Kyiv, but that the conflict would end with an agreement that would depend on the situation on the ground. A senior US official said Monday that the US aims to ensure that Ukraine “has the most power possible” in such peace negotiations.
Russia has moved some of its troops from around cities in northern Ukraine and is focusing instead on the eastern Donbas region, in a high-stakes conflict on wide open terrain.
As Putin’s army faces fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces bolstered by a hefty Western arsenal, concerns have grown in Washington and allied capitals that Russia could consider using so-called tactical nuclear weapons to win on the battlefield.
Earlier this month, Russia further warned that it could deploy a nuclear force in and around Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, and increase its military presence there if Finland and Sweden join the NATO alliance.
Finland and Sweden are considering joining NATO and will make a decision in the coming weeks. Both countries have a long tradition of military neutrality, but Russia’s invasion has skewed public opinion and political consensus in both countries to seek membership in the US-led alliance.