Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg has warned of “severe consequences for Russia” if Vladimir Putin were to use 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.
Any use of nuclear weapons would “change the nature” of the Ukraine conflict”, he added.
“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,” he said.
Stoltenberg’s remarks follow some of Putin’s sharpest rhetoric to date on Moscow’s willingness to use nuclear force as its military campaign suffers defeats in Ukraine.
Western leaders and government officials believe this threat has grown since Friday, when Putin formally annexed swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine and declared it Russian territory. Since then, Ukrainian forces say they have retaken the key railway hub of Lyman in Donetsk province, eastern Ukraine.
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.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s southern Chechnya region, on Saturday said a change of strategy was needed “right up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons”.
Tactical nuclear weapons typically have a tenth of the explosive potential of traditional nuclear weapons and are intended overcome conventional forces on a battlefield. Russia has about 2,000 of the weapons, which can be delivered as warheads on conventional missiles such as the Iskander that it has already deployed in Ukraine, but also by ground forces, fighter jets or naval gunships.
Stoltenberg also warned against attacks on Nato countries’ infrastructure, as western authorities investigate leaks from the Nord Stream pipeline last week that they believe were caused by sabotage.
“Any deliberate attack on a critical Nato infrastructure will be met with a firm and united response from Nato,” he said.
Stoltenberg said the west’s best response to Putin was to continue doing what it was doing now: providing Ukraine with the financial and military aid it needed to re-take critical territories, such as Lyman.
“That’s the best way to ensure that these territories — they are part of Ukraine and that Ukraine is actually able to liberate and retake occupied territory.”
The advance in Lyman “demonstrates that the Ukrainians are making progress, are able to push back the Russian forces because of their courage, because of their bravery and skills,” Stoltenberg said.
“But, of course, also because of the advanced weapons that the United States and other allies are providing. And this is making a difference on the battlefield every day.”
Additional reporting by Reuters