Putin’s foreign minister says the risk of nuclear war ‘is serious’

Kyiv: Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has warned Ukraine against provoking World War III and said the threat of a nuclear conflict “should not be underestimated”.

The day after the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, Lavrov has given a chilling interview to Russian state television in which he raised the spectre of nuclear confrontation and accused NATO of “pouring oil on the fire” by shipping arms to Ukraine.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019: in his role for almost 20 years, Lavrov is regarded as especially close to Putin. Credit:Tass

Asked about the possibility of a nuclear confrontation in an interview with Russia’s Channel 1 TV, Lavrov said: “I would not want to see these risks artificially inflated now when the risks are rather significant.”

“The danger is serious,” he said. “It is real. It should not be underestimated.”

The comments were widely seen as a response to Blinken’s declaration on Monday, Washington time, that “Russia is failing. Ukraine is succeeding”.

Austin took his comments further, saying that the US wants “to see Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine”.

Previously, the US position had been that the goal of American military aid was to help Ukraine win and to defend Ukraine’s NATO neighbours against Russian threats.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pose for a photo during their meeting in Kyiv.Credit:AP

In an apparent response to Austin, Lavrov said Russia has “a feeling that the West wants Ukraine to continue to fight and, as it seems to them, wear out, exhaust the Russian army and the Russian military industrial war complex. This is an illusion.”

He said weapons supplied by Western countries “will be a legitimate target,” adding that Russian forces had already targeted weapons warehouses in western Ukraine.

Lavrov accused Ukrainian leaders of provoking Russia by asking NATO to become involved in the conflict, and he said NATO has effectively “entered into a war with Russia through proxies and is arming those proxies”.

“Everyone is reciting incantations that in no case can we allow World War III,” he said, adding that, by providing weapons, NATO forces are “pouring oil on the fire,” according to a transcript on the Russian Foreign Ministry’s website.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter that Lavrov’s comments underscore Ukraine’s need for Western help: “Russia loses last hope to scare the world off supporting Ukraine. Thus the talk of a ‘real’ danger of WWIII. This only means Moscow senses defeat in Ukraine.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, its apparent goal was the lightning capture of Kyiv, the capital. But the Ukrainians, with the help of Western weapons, thwarted the push and forced President Vladimir Putin’s troops to retreat.

Moscow now says its goal is to take the Donbas, the mostly Russian-speaking industrial region in eastern Ukraine. While both sides say the campaign in the east is underway, Russia has yet to mount an all-out ground offensive and has not achieved any major breakthroughs.

On Monday, Russia focused its firepower elsewhere, with missiles and warplanes striking far behind the front lines in a bid to thwart Ukrainian efforts to marshal supplies for the fight.

Five railroad stations in central and western Ukraine were hit, and one worker was killed, said Oleksandr Kamyshin, head of Ukraine’s state railway. The bombardment included a missile attack near Lviv, the western city close to the Polish border that has been swelled by Ukrainians fleeing the fighting elsewhere around the country.

Ukrainian authorities said at least five people were killed by Russian strikes in the central Vynnytsia region.

Russia also destroyed an oil refinery in Kremenchuk, in central Ukraine, along with fuel depots there, Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said. In all, Russian warplanes destroyed 56 Ukrainian targets, he said.

Philip Breedlove, a retired US general who was NATO’s top commander from 2013 to 2016, said the latest strikes against fuel depots are part of a strategy to deplete key Ukrainian war resources. The strikes against rail targets, on the other hand, are a newer tactic, he said.

“I think they’re doing it for the legitimate reason of trying to interdict the flow of supplies to the front,” he said. “The illegitimate reason is they know people are trying to leave the country, and this is just another intimidation, terrorist tactic to make them not have faith and confidence in travelling on the rails.”

In Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova that sits along the Ukrainian border, several explosions believed to be caused by rocket-propelled grenades hit the territory’s Ministry of State Security. There was no immediate claim of responsibility or reports of injuries. Transnistria is a strip of land with about 470,000 people and 1,500 Russian troops based there.

Moldova’s Foreign Ministry said, “the aim of today’s incident is to create pretexts for straining the security situation in the Transnistrian region”. The US warned previously that Russia may launch “false-flag” attacks against its own side to create a pretext for invading other nations.

Last week, Rustam Minnekayev, a Russian military commander, said the Kremlin wants full control of southern Ukraine, which he said would open the way to Transnistria.

A Ukrainian serviceman in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 25, 2022.Credit:Felipe Dana/AP

An estimated 2,000 Ukrainian troops holed up in a steel plant in the strategic southern port city of Mariupol are tying down Russian forces and apparently keeping them from being added to the offensive elsewhere in the Donbas. Over the weekend, Russian forces launched new airstrikes on the Azovstal plant to try to dislodge the holdouts.

Some 1,000 civilians were also said to be taking shelter at the steelworks.

The city council and mayor of Mariupol said a new mass grave has been identified about 10 kilometres north of the city. Mayor Vadym Boychenko said authorities were trying to estimate the number of victims. It was at least the third new mass grave discovered in Russian-controlled areas near Mariupol in the last week.

Mariupol has been gutted by bombardment and fierce street fighting over the past two months. In addition to freeing up Russian troops, the capture of the city would deprive Ukraine of a vital port and allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.

In his nightly video address, Zelensky said his country’s goal is to maintain resistance and “make the occupiers’ stay in our land even more intolerable,” while Russia drains its resources.

AP

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