- Putin ally issues stark new nuclear warning
- NATO says it won’t go to war after a nuclear strike
- Voting ends on Ukraine’s annexation
- Russian undersea gas pipelines mysteriously damaged
LONDON/ZAPORECHA, Ukraine (Reuters) – An ally of President Vladimir Putin issued a stark new nuclear warning to Ukraine and the West on Tuesday, as Russia began publishing the results of referendums it approved in preparation for its annexation of four Ukrainian regions.
The latest criticism of Moscow came as European countries scrambled to investigate large, unexplained leaks in two Russian natural gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea, which posed risks of explosions and sinking of any ships entering the region.
The Kremlin, which has blamed technical problems for past cuts to Russian gas supplies to Europe, said it could not rule out sabotage without identifying who was responsible.
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The confrontation between Russia and the West has pushed up global inflation and increased energy and food crises in many countries since its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, which was met with tough Western sanctions and Russian retaliatory measures.
The nuclear warning delivered by Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council on Tuesday, is one of many that Putin and his cronies have issued in recent weeks.
Analysts say it is intended to deter Ukraine and the West by hinting at a willingness to use tactical nuclear weapons to defend the newly annexed territories, where Russian forces have faced powerful Ukrainian counter-attacks in recent weeks.
Medvedev’s warning differed from previous warnings in that he predicted for the first time that the NATO military alliance would not risk a nuclear war and enter directly into the Ukraine war even if Moscow struck Ukraine with nuclear weapons.
“I believe that NATO will not directly intervene in the conflict even in this scenario,” Medvedev said in a post on Telegram.
“Demogogy across the ocean and in Europe will not die in a nuclear catastrophe.”
The official RIA news agency reported that the first partial voting results from four regions of Ukraine partially occupied by Russia and its proxies showed an overwhelming majority in favor of joining Russia.
It was a widely anticipated announcement after a five-day referendum that Kyiv and the West denounced as a hoax and said they would not admit it. Ukraine urged the European Union to impose new punitive sanctions in response to the votes, which it said were carried out at gunpoint in many cases.
Putin said on state television that the vote was aimed at protecting people from what he described as Ukraine’s persecution of Russians and Russian speakers, something Kyiv denied.
“Saving people in all the territories where this referendum is being held is at the top of our minds and the focus of our society and country as a whole,” Putin said.
He earlier discussed mobilizing farmers to fight in Ukraine with officials, the latest step in a campaign he announced last week to support what Moscow calls its “special military operation” after this month’s battlefield reversal.
The campaign prompted thousands of Russians to rush to cross the Russian border into neighboring countries.
Russian government officials have repeatedly warned that they could use nuclear weapons if Kyiv’s forces, which control some areas claimed by Moscow, attempt to seize what Russia will soon consider sovereign territory.
Washington said it privately made clear to Moscow what it described as “catastrophic consequences” for Russia.
Ukraine’s presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolak, said Ukraine was preparing for the possibility of a Russian nuclear strike, but the onus was on nuclear-armed states to deter it.
“… Where exactly should we evacuate people in the event of a Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine?” asked in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Blick. This is why the use of nuclear weapons is a matter of global security. “
In the center of Kyiv, music teacher Andrey Lyubomir said he was not bothered by the prospect of a nuclear strike.
“So what?” he told Reuters, referring to the start of the Russian invasion.
Podolyak said Ukrainians who helped Russia organize the annexation referendum would face charges of treason and at least five years in prison.
“We have lists of people who were involved in some way,” he said, adding that Ukrainians forced to vote would not be punished. Ukrainian officials report that ballot boxes are moved from house to house and residents are forced to vote in front of Russian forces.
“I consider this (referendum) illegal and unreasonable,” said Oleksandr Belbenko, a 70-year-old resident of Kyiv. “I think it’s just a populist move.”
None of the provinces are fully under Moscow’s control, and fighting continues along the entire front line, with Ukrainian forces reporting further advances since they defeated Russian forces in a fifth province, Kharkiv, earlier this month.
Putin is expected to announce the accession of the occupied territories to the Russian Federation in the coming weeks during a speech to parliament on September 30.
The head of Russia’s upper house of parliament said the chamber may consider merging Russia’s four regions on October 4.
Ukrainian and Russian forces engaged in heavy fighting in various parts of Ukraine on Tuesday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the Donetsk region in the east remains a major strategic priority for his country – and Russia – with “particularly intense” fighting sweeping through many towns.
The district governor, Pavlo Kirilenko, said three civilians had been killed in the past 24 hours.
Clashes were also reported in the northeastern Kharkiv region – the focus of Ukraine’s counter-offensive this month.
Ukrainian forces in the south continued to try to keep bridges and other river crossings out of the way to disrupt supply lines for Russian forces. The Air Force said it had shot down three Iranian-made drones operated by Russia after an attack on the Mykolaiv region.
Reuters was not immediately able to verify the battlefield reports.
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Reporting by Reuters offices. Written by Andrew Osborne; Editing by Philippa Fletcher
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