A nuclear attack is now a tangible fear for Ukraine citizens by Russia who last week annexed four regions in the neighbouring country, following referendums denounced by the West as a sham.
Russian President Vladimir Putin declared sovereignty over the regions and follows a recent declaration to protect Russian territories by all means at his disposal, implying he would resort to nuclear weapons. Russia is suffering significant military setbacks, which has raised speculation of escalation of attacks.
Analysts speculate that any annexation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson will take the war into a dangerous new phase. It happens as thousands of Russian men attempt to flee the country to avoid a mobilisation decree set to draft 300,000 new conscripts for war. Many are poor Russians, scared of being placed on the frontline where military failures and high casualty numbers are embarrassing Putin.
At a huge parade, Putin addressed crowds in Moscow’s Red Square, where he vowed to “do everything” to “raise the level of security” in the seized regions. Speaking at a televised patriotic pop concert, he said people in the regions had made a choice to re-join their “historic motherland”. “Welcome home!” he said to the flag-waving crowd.
In a firm rebuttal to Putin’s ceremony in Moscow, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, announced in Kyiv that his country was formally applying for fast-track membership of the NATO alliance. Zelenskyy accused Russia of brazenly rewriting history and redrawing borders “using murder, blackmail, mistreatment and lies”, adding that Ukraine would not hold any peace talks as long as Putin was president.
The Kremlin said again that it would consider attacks against any part of its claimed regions of Ukraine as acts of aggression against Russia itself.
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg has warned of “severe consequences for Russia” if Putin uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine, amid escalating rhetoric from Moscow and its allies.
“The nuclear rhetoric is dangerous. It’s reckless,” Stoltenberg told NBC’s Meet The Press on Sunday. “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. And this is a message that NATO and NATO allies convey clearly to Russia.”
At least Ukrainian forces say they have retaken the key railway hub of Lyman, in eastern Ukraine, just south of Donetsk. The defeat in Lyman has been met with widespread criticism in Russia of the country’s military command. Some of Putin’s most ardent supporters have demanded a more robust response, with some nationalist hawks proposing the use of a low-yield nuclear weapon.