Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says territory of Ukraine where widely-criticised referendums are being held will be under Moscow’s “full protection” if they are annexed, raising the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons if Kyiv tries to retake those territories.
Lavrov’s comments at a news conference in the US city of New York on Saturday came as residents of four Russian-occupied regions in eastern and southern Ukraine continued voting on whether to join Russia.
Moscow has described the four-day referendums that began on Friday as a vote for self-determination, but Ukraine and its Western allies view the polls as a Kremlin-orchestrated sham with a foregone conclusion.
Kyiv says many of the regions’ residents are being coerced into casting their ballots.
“Following those referendums, Russia of course will respect the expression of the will of those people who for many long years have been suffering from the abuses of the neo-Nazi regime,” Lavrov told reporters after addressing the United Nations General Assembly.
When asked if Russia would have grounds for using nuclear weapons to defend annexed regions of Ukraine, Lavrov said Russian territory, including territory “further enshrined” in Russia’s constitution in the future, “is under the full protection of the state”.
“All of the laws, doctrines, concepts and strategies of the Russian Federation apply to all of its territory,” he said, also referring specifically to Russia’s doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons.
The minister’s comments follow an explicit warning on Thursday by 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 territories incorporated into Russia. Putin had also earlier pledged to use “all the means at our disposal”, including nuclear weapons, to protect his country if its territorial integrity was threatened.
Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said Lavrov’s comments, and Putin’s earlier statement when he said he was not bluffing about using nuclear weapons, were “irresponsible” and “absolutely unacceptable”.
“Ukraine won’t give in. We call on all nuclear powers to speak out now and make it clear to Russia that such rhetorics put the world at risk and will not be tolerated,” Kuleba wrote on Twitter.
Ukraine has also requested an urgent UN Security Council meeting over the referendums, calling for Russia to be “held accountable for its further attempts to change Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders in a violation of the UN Charter”, foreign affairs ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko said on Twitter.
Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has killed thousands, is now in its seventh month and many leaders who had spoken at the UN’s annual summit in New York had laid into Moscow for the conflict – denouncing its nuclear threats, alleging it has committed atrocities and war crimes and lambasting its decision to call up some of its reserves.
Lavrov had used his UN address earlier to justify Russia’s actions, repeating Russian claims that the elected government in Kyiv was illegitimately installed, filled with neo-Nazis and oppressed Russian speakers in the country’s east.
He also sought to shift the focus to the United States, claiming that Washington and its NATO allies – not Russia, as the West maintains – are aggressively undermining the system that the UN represents. He accused the West of aiming to “destroy and fracture Russia” in order to “remove from the global map a geopolitical entity that has become all too independent”.
Asked at the news conference whether he could foresee future talks with the US to make Russia feel more secure about what it calls NATO encroachment in its sphere of influence, Lavrov said it was the West that had broken off previous discussions. His US counterpart Antony Blinken cut off talks on the eve of the invasion, saying Russia’s movement of forces on Ukraine’s border was a “wholesale rejection of diplomacy”.
“We’re not saying no to contacts. And when proposals to that effect come in, we agree. If our partners want to meet quietly so nobody finds out about it that’s fine because it’s always better to talk than not to talk,” Lavrov said.
“But in the present situation, Russia is quite simply not going to make the first step.”
He also sought to portray opposition to Russia’s war in Ukraine as limited to Washington and countries under its influence, despite nearly three-quarters of the General Assembly voting to reprimand Moscow in March.
Russia’s strategic partner China has been firmly on the fence, however, criticising Western sanctions against Moscow but stopping short of endorsing or assisting in the military campaign. In a surprise acknowledgement, Putin last week said China’s leader Xi Jinping had concerns about Ukraine.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in his UN address called on both Russia and Ukraine to “keep the crisis from spilling over” and from affecting developing countries.
“China supports all efforts conducive to the peaceful resolution of the Ukraine crisis. The pressing priority is to facilitate talks for peace,” Wang said. “The fundamental 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 reporters if Russia was coming under any pressure from China to end the war, Lavrov said: “You may tell your readers, listeners, viewers that I avoided to answer your question.”
The Russian backed separatists are holding referenda in the territory of Ukraine under occupation.