NATO slams Putin rhetoric on nuclear weapons in Belarus
NATO castigated Vladimir Putin over his nuclear rhetoric a day after the Russian president said he planned to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, escalating a standoff with the West.
The plan is one of Russia's clearest nuclear signals since the start of its invasion of Ukraine 13 months ago, and Ukraine called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council in response.
"Russia's nuclear rhetoric is dangerous and irresponsible," NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said on Sunday.
"NATO is vigilant and we are closely monitoring the situation. We have not seen any changes in Russia's nuclear posture that would lead us to adjust our own."
In his comments on Saturday, Putin likened the move to the U.S. stationing its weapons in Europe, while insisting that Russia would not violate its nuclear non-proliferation promises.
While Washington, the world's other nuclear superpower, played down concerns about Putin's announcement, NATO said the Russian president's non-proliferation pledge and his description of U.S. weapons deployment overseas were way off the mark.
"Russia's reference to NATO's nuclear sharing is totally misleading. NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments," Lungescu said in a statement. "Russia has consistently broken its arms control commitments."
A top security adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Oleksiy Danilov, said Russia's plan would destabilise Belarus, which he said had been taken hostage by Moscow.
Lithuania said on Sunday it would call for new sanctions against Moscow and Minsk in response to Russia's plan.
Lithuania will ask for the additional sanctions to be included in a package of penalties being discussed in Brussels, the foreign ministry's spokesperson said.
Experts said Russia's move was significant since it had until now been proud that unlike the United States, it did not deploy nuclear weapons outside its borders. It may be the first time since the mid-1990s that it has done so.
Mykhailo Podolyak, another senior Zelenskiy adviser, on Sunday scoffed at Putin's plan on Twitter.
"He admits that he is afraid of losing & all he can do is scare with tactics," Podolyak tweeted.
Tactical nuclear weapons refer to those used for specific gains on a battlefield rather than those with the capacity to wipe out cities. It is unclear how many such weapons Russia has, given it is an area still shrouded in Cold War secrecy.
UKRAINE URGES U.N. MEETING
Ukraine called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, and it asked the international community to "take decisive measures" to prevent Russia's use of nuclear weapons.
The European Union also condemned Russia's move, with its foreign policy chief Josep Borrell urging Belarus not to host the weapons and threatening further sanctions.
Analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said the risk of escalation to nuclear war "remains extremely low."
Putin said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had long requested the deployment. Lukashenko has not publicly addressed the comments.
While the Belarusian army has not formally fought in Ukraine, Minsk and Moscow have close military ties. Minsk allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory to send troops into Ukraine last year.
Putin on Sunday also asserted that Western powers are building a new "axis" similar to the partnership between Germany and Japan during World War Two.
He has often portrayed the war as Moscow fighting a Ukraine in the grip of supposed Nazis, abetted by Western powers menacing Russia.
Ukraine - which was part of the Soviet Union and itself suffered devastation at the hands of Hitler's forces - rejects those parallels as spurious pretexts for a war of conquest.
On the battlefield, Russian forces hit military targets in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, causing significant Ukrainian casualties, Russia's defence ministry said on Sunday.
The front lines remain unchanged and Bakhmut continues to be the hottest area on the front, with the fiercest fighting to the north of the city and in the city centre itself, according to Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.
Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak said Russian forces had destroyed two apartment buildings in a missile strike on the eastern city of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region. He said there were no casualties.
Reuters could not verify the battlefield reports.
** Ukraine's Avdiivka becoming 'post-apocalyptic', official says
Russia is turning Ukraine's Avdiivka into "a place from post-apocalyptic movies", intensifying shelling and forcing a nearly full shutdown of the frontline city, the top local official said on Sunday.
Some 2,000 civilians are left in Avdiivka, a Donetsk region city some 90 kilometres (56 miles) southwest of the besieged Bakhmut, according to officials. The city had a pre-war population of more than 30,000.
"I am sad to say this, but Avdiivka is becoming more and more like a place from post-apocalyptic movies," the city's military administration head Vitaliy Barabash said on the Telegram messaging app.
The evacuation of the utility workers that were still left in the city has begun and mobile reception will be turned off soon, "because there are informers of the Russian occupiers in the city," Barabash added.
With Russian forces making recent gradual gains on the flanks of Avdiivka, the Ukrainian military warned last week that the city could become a "second Bakhmut" - where months-long fierce fighting has turned the town into rubble.
On Sunday, Russian shelling targeted two high-rise buildings in Avdiivka, which is just 10 km from the northern outskirts of the city of Donetsk, which has been under Moscow's control since 2014.
One person was injured in numerous air strikes on Avdiivka on Saturday, according to Ukrainian military.
"You have to go, you have to pack your things, especially with your children," Barabash said.
Russia has denied targeting civilians in the now 13-month war it has waged against its neighbour. The war, which has no end in sight, has seen thousands killed, millions displaced and tens of Ukrainian cities nearly or partially wiped out.
** Three injured as Russia downs Ukrainian drone south of Moscow
Russian air defences halted a Ukrainian drone attack on a Russian town on Sunday in which three people were hurt and apartment blocks were damaged, the Russian Defence Ministry said.
Kyiv did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It has previously denied Russian assertions that its drones - also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) - have flown into Russian territory and caused damage to civilian infrastructure.
The Defence Ministry statement said the attack on the town of Kireyevsk, in Tula region 220 km (140 miles) south of Moscow, involved a Ukrainian Tu-141 Strizh drone.
"A Polye-21 electronic unit took action against the Ukrainian drone, and as a result its navigation system was taken out of action," the ministry statement said.
"The drone lost its directional command and fell near the town of Kireyevsk in Tula region."
Tass news agency quoted local officials as saying three people were hurt in the incident, but there were no serious injuries. It said five private homes were damaged.
The blast, which occurred at around 3.20 pm (1220 GMT), caused a large crater in the heart of Kireyevsk, a local emergency services representative told TASS.
Social media videos and pictures showed a muddy crater near a building with its roof and walls heavily damaged. Shards of glass from broken windows spread across the stairwell of a nearby apartment block.
Reuters could not immediately verify the images.
Russia has previously reported drone attacks in several towns and cities, some of them hundreds of kilometres (miles) from its border with Ukraine.
Three Russian air force personnel died on Dec. 26 when a drone believed to be Ukrainian was shot down at the main base for Russia's strategic bombers near the city of Saratov after flying hundreds of kilometres through Russian airspace.
Putin calls West ‘instigators’ of conflict in Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Western countries as "initiators and instigators" of the conflict in Ukraine.
"An armed coup - that's where it all started. We were forced to protect the population of Crimea, and this way or another we ended up supporting Donbass. They pretend they had nothing to do with it. They are the initiators of this conflict and the instigators. And today they are handing over millions more munitions, hardware and so on," the president said, answering questions from host Pavel Zarubin.
Putin stressed that he had repeatedly spoken about this, adding that the former leadership of Ukraine could also be blamed for certain mistakes. "But it is their internal affair, of Ukraine itself. But staging a coup, besides a bloody one, - this is a completely different story," he went on to say.
According to Putin, the West is crossing all red and even deep-red lines by supplying weapons to the Kiev regime. "Yes, that’s what they are doing, they did it from the very start in 2014. When they facilitated the coup," the president said, responding to Zarubin's question who said that weapons supplies to Kiev, including depleted uranium munitions, meant crossing red and even deep-red lines.
** Kiev behind drone attack deep into Russia – MOD
An explosion in the town of Kireevsk in Russia’s Tula Region on Sunday was the result of a thwarted Ukrainian drone attack, the Russian Defense Ministry has announced. It said the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was downed using electromagnetic warfare methods.
Ukrainian forces launched a strike variant of a Soviet-made Tu-141 Strizh (‘Swift’) drone, according to the ministry. Russian air defense forces stationed in Tula Region used an electromagnetic warfare system, Pole-21 (Field-21), to disable its navigation systems and drive it off course, the ministry’s statement said. The UAV eventually crashed in Kireevsk. Its actual target was not revealed in the statement.
Earlier on Sunday, the Russian media reported that at least three people were injured and three residential buildings damaged in the blast caused by the drone crash. Kiev has not commented on the incident.
Tula Region is located south of Moscow, some 250km away from the nearest border with Ukraine. In early March, its governor ordered increased security measures in the wake of Ukrainian drone attacks on Russian soil.
According to the Defense Ministry, the air defense force deployed to the region includes S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile systems, as well as Pantsir-S1 medium-range air defense missile and artillery systems together with Pole-21 electromagnetic warfare systems.