U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States has made it clear publicly and privately to Russia to “stop the loose talk about nuclear weapons” in the Ukraine conflict following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement that he would use any means to defend Russia.
“It’s very important that Moscow hear from us and know from us that the consequences would be horrific, and we’ve made that very clear,” Blinken told CBS News’s “60 Minutes” show in an interview broadcast late Sunday.
Blinken said using nuclear weapons “would have catastrophic effects for, of course, the country using them, but for many others as well.”
The U.S. response came after Putin signaled the possibility of a nuclear attack last week as he called up 300,000 military reservists to help Russia fight in its seven-month invasion of Ukraine. The troop augmentation came after Russian battlefield setbacks, with Kyiv’s forces recapturing large swaths of territory in northeast Ukraine that Russia had seized in the early weeks of the war.
Britain’s defense ministry said Monday that the first of the call-ups had started to arrive at military bases, but that Russia faces administrative and logistical challenges in training those troops.
“Many of the drafted troops will not have had any military experience for some years,” the ministry said. “The lack of military trainers, and the haste with which Russia has started the mobilization, suggests that many of the drafted troops will deploy to the front line with minimal relevant preparation. They are likely to suffer a high attrition rate.”
Protests against call-up
Widespread protests against Putin’s troop call-up have erupted in Russia, with police arresting hundreds of demonstrators participating in street protests in Moscow and elsewhere.
In Russia’s Siberia region Monday, a 25-year-old man shot a military commandant at an enlistment center, the local governor said.
Many men opposed to Putin’s war or fearful of being killed in the battlefront have abruptly fled Russia on flights to other countries, while others have joined long queues of cars on land routes headed to the Russian borders with Finland, Georgia and other countries.
Russia is in the midst of staging five days of disputed referenda in four regions of Ukraine it either fully or partially controls, votes where it assumes the local residents will support Russian annexation, which would give Moscow a pretext to defend the newly claimed territory. In some instances, Russian soldiers have been going door to door to order Ukrainians to vote at gunpoint.
But Ukraine, the U.S. and other Western allies are calling the referenda sham votes and of no legal consequence. Any Russian annexation of Ukrainian land would not be globally recognized.
“These so-called elections are a sham, period,” Blinken told CBS. “They go in, they put in puppet governments, local governments, and then they proceed with a vote, which they’ll manipulate in any event in order to try to declare the territory Russian territory. It is not. It will never be recognized as such. And the Ukrainians have every right to take it back.”
Fears are running high that Moscow may close the borders to men of fighting age after the referendums in Ukraine end to stem the mass exodus.
A State Department official said Putin gave the U.S. and its allies a gift last week by engaging in nuclear saber-rattling, calling for a troop mobilization and announcing the referenda while the U.S. was at the United Nations “talking about sovereignty and international peace and security.” The official said Russia “couldn’t have timed it better to put a spotlight on the grave offenses that Russia is committing to Ukraine and the international order.”
At a commemoration of the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons in New York, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday that nuclear weapons do not offer security, just “carnage and chaos” and said eliminating them would be the greatest gift humanity could offer future generations.
“Let me be clear: The era of nuclear blackmail must end,” Guterres said. “The idea that any country could fight and win a nuclear war is deranged. Any use of a nuclear weapon would incite a humanitarian Armageddon. We need to step back.”
In an interview aired Sunday on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” show, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Ukrainians who refuse to vote in the referenda face significant retribution from Russian forces.
“Russians can turn off their electricity and won’t give them an opportunity to live a normal human life,” Zelenskyy said. “They force people, they throw them in prisons. They force them to come to these pseudo-referenda. And also, they also announced mobilization [of 300,000 reservists.] They’re forcing people to fight, people from the temporarily occupied territories.”
But Zelenskyy said, “There is no support in the society for this referendum.”
The Ukrainian leader said the referenda are “a very dangerous signal” from Putin that he does not intend to end the war.
“He knows that he’s losing the war,” Zelenskyy said. “In the battlefield, Ukraine has seized the initiative. He cannot explain to his society why, and he is looking for answers to these questions.”
With the West and Ukraine saying the voting is almost assuredly preordained to favor Russian annexation, Zelenskyy said Moscow will then say, “Now, it’s the West who attacks Russia. Now, the West attacks our territories. We have to let the society join Russia, the society that wanted to be with Russia.”
Zelenskyy said a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine “could be a reality. He wants to scare the whole world. These are the first steps of his nuclear blackmail. I don’t think he’s bluffing.”
But Zelenskyy added, “I think the world is deterring it and containing this threat. We need to keep putting pressure on him and not allow him to continue.”
He concluded, “I think that the military strategy of military and political leadership of Russia has not changed: its occupation of our country. And of course, they want to destabilize our country from inside.”
He said Ukrainians are united against Putin, “even more united now than ever, over the 31 years of our independence from the Soviet Union.”
“So, he does everything possible to destabilize our country to make sure we’re weaker. And for that he wants to divide us of course, I’m one of the targets, of course, it goes without saying,” Zelenskyy said. “It’s not because of my personality, just because… because the president is a leader of their country.”