Ukrainian officials have called on world leaders to issue a firm warning to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, making it clear that any attempt to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine would result in catastrophic consequences for Russia.
“The other nuclear states need to say very firmly that as soon as Russia even thinks of carrying out nuclear strikes on foreign territory – in this case the territory of Ukraine – there will be swift retaliatory nuclear strikes to destroy the nuclear launch sites in Russia,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior aide to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in an interview at the presidential administration in Kyiv.
On Wednesday, Russian television aired an address by Putin in which he demonstratively played the nuclear card. The Russian president also announced “referendums” in four partially occupied regions of Ukraine, on the question of the territories joining Russia, and declared partial mobilisation.
“When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal… It’s not a bluff,” said Putin.
Since February, Putin has made nuclear threats several times, but Wednesday’s was the most clear and explicit to date, and has left analysts scrambling to determine whether the possibility Putin could resort to nukes is real or just a bluff.
“I think the analytical capacity of Putin’s circle is very low at the moment – they don’t understand all the risks of what they are doing and where it has already brought the Russian Federation,” said Podolyak. “It’s hard to make predictions when a person is completely irrational.”
It is unlikely that western leaders will heed Ukrainian calls for direct retaliatory threats, but Podolyak said letting Russia get away with nuclear threats would erode the long-standing principle that nuclear weapons can only be used defensively when the survival of a country was at stake.
“We have a big country that enters Ukrainian territory, starts a war, seizes some territory, and then says this territory is now ours and if you try to take it back we’ll use nuclear weapons. It looks absolutely absurd, and furthermore it destroys the whole global system of nuclear deterrence,” said Podolyak.
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Putin’s threats should be taken seriously, but added that much would depend on how the west responded. “You can’t have someone wandering around with a grenade with the pin removed and threatening everyone with it just because he can,” she told the Guardian.
Vereshchuk also called on western politicians to spell out to Putin what pursuing the nuclear option would mean in practice. “There should be a firm ultimatum to Russia with what will happen. Up to now, there hasn’t been… We need it to be seriously and clearly articulated. They understand only force, and only asymmetrical force,” she said, however she declined to say exactly what she believed the West should threaten.
As world leaders gathered in New York for the UN general assembly, many have condemned Putin’s invasion, including the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who described the Russian attempt to occupy Ukraine as “a return to the age of imperialism”.
On Wednesday, the US president, Joe Biden, told the assembly Putin’s invasion had “shamelessly violated” the UN charter, and said his nuclear threats showed “reckless disregard” for the responsibilities of a nuclear state. However, there is no sign yet of any leader willing to issue threats of nuclear retaliation to Putin.
On the ground, Russia continued its bombardment of Ukrainian cities on Wednesday, firing a series of long-range missiles at Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, in the early hours.
The city has been regularly hit since the start of Russia’s invasion in February, but is now out of artillery range, following Ukraine’s stunning counter-offensive earlier this month. Russian troops abandoned their positions and retreated across the border.
On Wednesday, at least one missile struck a high-rise apartment in the western Zalutino district. It gouged a hole out of the top of the building and blew out windows in apartments facing onto a grassy square. Ten residents were injured.
Resident Yevgeniy Subota, whose apartment was damaged by the blast, dismissed Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons in the event of his defeat in Ukraine: “It’s bluff. We don’t believe it. There would be a reaction from the US. He’s just trying to scare us.”
Preparations are also under way for the so-called “referendums”, due to take place this weekend in the parts of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions controlled by Russia.
It is not clear how the Kremlin plans to provide even the smallest semblance of legitimacy for the votes, which will take place amid an active military conflict, with much of the population displaced and large parts of the area claimed by Russia still under Ukrainian control.
In Kyiv, officials promised to pay no attention to the “referendums”, and said they would have no influence on the ongoing Ukrainian counterattack. In his nightly address on Tuesday, Zelenskiy described the plans as “noise” and said Ukrainian authorities and the country’s armed forces would ignore Russia’s declarations.
Vereshchuk described the referendums as a “pathetic attempt” by Putin to provide justification to the Russian people for the ongoing invasion.
“It’s for the internal audience to explain why there have been so many losses. I don’t think your average Russian Ivan from Ivanovo really understands why his son died somewhere in a village in Kherson region,” she said.