Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that nuclear tensions were rising, although he insisted “we haven’t gone insane” and Moscow would not be the first to deploy nuclear weapons in the Ukraine conflict.
More than nine months after his forces began their military operation, Putin warned that the conflict could be “protracted”.
Russian forces have missed most of their key military targets since February, raising fears that the battlefield standoff could prompt Russia to draw on its nuclear arsenal in an attempt to make a breakthrough.
“We haven’t gone crazy, we know what nuclear weapons are,” Putin said at a meeting of his Human Rights Council on Wednesday.
“We’re not going to brandish it like a razor as we run around the world.”
But he acknowledged the growing tensions, saying: “Such a threat is increasing. Why make it a secret here?”
However, he added that Russia would only use a nuclear weapon in response to an enemy attack.
“If we’re attacked, we’ll hit back,” Putin said, stressing that Moscow’s strategy was based on a policy of “so-called retaliatory strikes.”
“But if under no circumstances are we the first to use them, then we won’t be the second either, because in the event of a nuclear strike on our territory, the possibilities for using them are very limited,” he said.
His statements were immediately reprimanded by the United States.
“We find any loose talk about nuclear weapons absolutely irresponsible,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
“It is dangerous and goes against the spirit of that statement, which has been at the core of the nuclear non-proliferation regime since the Cold War,” he said.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz, however, said that the risk of nuclear weapons being used in the Ukraine conflict had decreased thanks to international pressure on Russia.
“One thing has changed for now: Russia has stopped threatening to use nuclear weapons,” Scholz said in an interview with Funke media group, saying it was “in response to a red line being drawn by the international community.”
“The priority now is for Russia to end the war immediately and withdraw its troops,” he added.
– Sea of Azov –
Intense shelling continued on the front lines in eastern Ukraine, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that ten civilians were killed in attacks in the Kurakhove region of Donetsk region on Wednesday.
“The Russian army carried out a very brutal, absolutely deliberate strike against civilians in Kurakhove,” said the president, who was named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” earlier in the day, during his late-night address.
The shelling in Kurakhove came a day after Ukrainian artillery strikes killed six people in the eponymous capital of the Donetsk region, according to the Moscow-installed mayor.
Moscow had expected the fighting to last only a few days, but more than nine months after his troops invaded Ukraine, Putin said his military operation could be a “lengthy process”.
But he hailed the announced annexation of four Ukrainian territories following September referendums held by Moscow proxies – which have been denounced as hypocrisy in the West.
“New areas have emerged – well, this is still a significant result for Russia,” Putin said, referring to the Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia regions.
He also specifically noted that Russia is gaining control of the entire country along the Sea of Azov.
“The Sea of Azov has become an inland sea of the Russian Federation, this is a serious matter,” he noted.
Despite their best efforts, Russian troops have never fully controlled any of the annexed areas and were even driven out of the capital, Kherson, after a month-long Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Amid domestic fears of a new enlistment – which prompted an exodus of Russians abroad in September to avoid an emergency service – Putin said “there is no need” for a new mobilization.
“Of 300,000 of our mobilized fighters, our men, defenders of the fatherland, 150,000 are in the theater of operations,” including 77,000 in combat units, he said.
© Agence France-Presse