Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said regions of Ukraine where widely criticized referendums are being held would be under Moscow’s “full protection” if they were annexed, raising the possibility that nuclear weapons would be used if Kyiv tried to reclaim those territories.
Lavrov’s remarks at a news conference in New York City on Saturday came as residents of four Russian-occupied regions in eastern and southern Ukraine continue to vote on whether to join Russia.
Moscow has described the four-day referendum, which began on Friday, as a vote on self-determination, but Ukraine and its Western allies view the elections as travesties orchestrated by the Kremlin with an imposed result.
Kyiv says many residents of the area are being forced to vote.
“After these referendums, Russia will, of course, respect the expression of the will of those people who for many years suffered from the abuses of the neo-Nazi regime,” Lavrov told reporters after addressing the UN General Assembly.
Asked whether Russia had reasons to use nuclear weapons to defend the annexed areas of Ukraine, Lavrov said that Russian territory, including those “further provided for” in the Russian constitution in the future, are “subject to full state protection.”
“All laws, doctrines, concepts and strategies of the Russian Federation apply to all of its territories,” he said, also referring specifically to Russia’s doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons.
The minister’s comments follow a frank warning Thursday from former President Dmitry Medvedev, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, that any weapons in Moscow’s arsenal, including strategic nuclear weapons, could be used to defend Russia’s incorporated territories. Putin also earlier pledged to use “all means available to us,” including nuclear weapons, to protect his country if its territorial integrity is threatened.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Lavrov’s comments and Putin’s earlier statement when he said he was not deceiving about the use of nuclear weapons were “absolutely irresponsible” and “totally unacceptable”.
“Ukraine will not surrender. We call on all nuclear powers to speak out now and make it clear to Russia that such rhetoric endangers the world and will not be tolerated,” Kuleba wrote on Twitter.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said on Twitter that Ukraine had also requested an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the referendums, calling for “Russia to be held accountable for its further attempts to change Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders in violation of the UN Charter.” .
Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has claimed thousands of lives, is now in its seventh month and many leaders speaking at the annual United Nations summit in New York have put Moscow’s position on the conflict – denouncing its nuclear threats, claiming it has committed atrocities and war. Regardless of its decision to recall some of its reserves.
Lavrov used his earlier speech at the United Nations to justify Russia’s actions, repeating false claims that the elected government in Kyiv had been installed illegally, filled with neo-Nazis and persecuted Russian-speakers in the east of the country.
He has also sought to shift focus to the United States, claiming that Washington and its NATO allies – not Russia, as the West asserts – are powerfully undermining the system represented by the United Nations. He accused the West of seeking to “destroy and divide Russia” in order to “remove a geopolitical entity that has become too independent from the world map.”
Asked at the press conference if he could anticipate future talks with the United States to make Russia feel more secure about what it calls the encroachment of NATO into its sphere of influence, Lavrov claimed that it was the West that halted earlier discussions. His US counterpart Anthony Blinken broke off the talks on the eve of the invasion, saying that the move of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border was a “total rejection of diplomacy”.
We never say no to contacts. And when proposals are made to this effect, we agree. “If our partners want to meet quietly so that no one finds out, it’s okay because it is always better to talk than not to talk,” said Lavrov.
“But in the current situation, Russia simply will not take the first step.”
He also sought to portray opposition to Russia’s war in Ukraine as limited to Washington and the countries under its influence, even though nearly three-quarters of the General Assembly voted to rebuke Moscow in March.
However, China, Russia’s strategic partner, has remained on the sidelines, criticizing Western sanctions against Moscow, but stopping short of endorsing or assisting in the military campaign. And in a surprising admission, Putin said last week that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has concerns about Ukraine.
In his address to the United Nations, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on Russia and Ukraine to “prevent the spread of the crisis” and not to affect developing countries.
China supports all efforts leading to a peaceful solution to the Ukraine crisis. The urgent priority is to facilitate talks for peace. “The basic solution is to address the legitimate security concerns of all parties and build a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture,” he added.
When asked by journalists whether Russia was under any pressure from China to end the war, Lavrov said: “You can tell readers, listeners and viewers that I avoided answering your question.”