Russia has moved closer to annexing more of Ukraine in a step that Britain said the Kremlin could announce this week, as western concerns grew over Moscow’s repeated nuclear threats and mysterious damage to a major Baltic Sea gas pipeline.
Moscow appointees in four occupied areas of Ukraine said on Tuesday that preliminary results from “referendums” supposedly held over recent days showed massive support for joining Russia.
The Kremlin has made clear it is ready to annex parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions that its troops now hold, and senior officials in Russia have said that in certain circumstances it could use nuclear weapons to defend them.
Britain’s defence ministry said there was a “realistic possibility” that Russian president Vladimir Putin could use an address to both houses of his country’s parliament on Friday “to formally announce the accession of the occupied regions of Ukraine to the Russian Federation”.
Russian state media have reported that the lower house of parliament could debate the annexation on Thursday, and the Kremlin clearly intends to move quickly on the issue to regain some momentum following the costly, chaotic and embarrassing withdrawal of its military from the Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine.
The “referendums” were announced only last week, just days before they began, and coincided with Russia launching the mobilisation of 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine and a string of statements from senior officials reminding the West of Moscow’s nuclear might.
“Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons if necessary … If we or our allies are attacked using this type of weapon. Or if aggression with the use of conventional weapons threatens the very existence of our state,” said Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president who is now deputy chairman of the country’s security council.
He said Nato states “understand that if the threat to Russia exceeds the established limit of risk, we will have to respond. Without asking anyone’s permission, without long consultations. And it’s definitely not a bluff”.
If Russia struck Ukraine with nuclear weapons in such a scenario, “I believe Nato will not directly intervene… After all, the security of Washington, London and Brussels is much more important for [Nato] than the fate of a dying Ukraine which nobody needs,” Mr Medvedev added.
The United States has warned of “catastrophic consequences” for Russia if it attacked Ukraine with nuclear weapons, and Kyiv and several western capitals have described the threats as a desperate gambit by a Kremlin that is under mounting pressure.
Thousands of Russian men have fled to neighbouring countries to avoid mobilisation, police have arrested some 2,500 people who protested against the plan, several conscription centres have been attacked and a draft officer was shot and badly wounded in Siberia on Monday.
Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine has destroyed all aspects of its relations with the West, including energy supply, and major leaks have now been detected in two Baltic Sea gas pipelines after in what several European states said could be acts of sabotage.
The Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines were not pumping fuel to Europe when the leaks occurred, but they contained significant amounts of gas that are now pouring into the Baltic.
Danish premier Mette Frederiksen said there were “three leaks with some distance between them, and that’s why it is hard to imagine that it is a coincidence”.
Her Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki said it was “an act of sabotage, related to the next step of escalation of the situation in Ukraine”, while the Kremlin called the news “very worrying” and said sabotage could not be ruled out.
Moscow says Europe’s people and economy will suffer this winter without Russian gas supplies, but the EU says it is broadly prepared for such a scenario.