Russian President Vladimir Putin triggered a chorus of condemnations on Wednesday when, in addition to announcing the mobilisation of some 300,000 reservists for the war in Ukraine, he threatened the West to use nuclear weapons.
In a pre-recorded speech aired on Russian state television, Putin also accused the West of wanting to "destroy" Russia and subject it to "nuclear blackmail."
“I would like to remind those who make these kinds of statements that our country, too, has various means of destruction,” the Russian president said. “When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg denounced the "dangerous nuclear rhetoric" from the Russian President, although he noted that this was not the first time Putin had made such threats.
"It's not new as he has done it many times before," Stoltenberg said on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. “He knows very well that a nuclear war should never be fought and cannot be won,” he commented during a meeting organised by Reuters news agency.
The most important thing is to prevent a nuclear war from happening, Stoltenberg said, adding that the allies would remain calm and continue to support Ukraine. NATO had not detected any change in Russia's nuclear posture, but was watching it closely and remained vigilant, the NATO Secretary-General said.
He also noted that Putin's speech showed that the war was not going as he had planned. "He made a huge miscalculation," Stoltenberg said.
White House Spokesman John Kirby said Washington was taking Putin’s threat seriously and that there would be “serious consequences” if he were to deliver on it. “It’s irresponsible rhetoric for a nuclear power to talk that way, but it’s not atypical for how he's been talking in the last seven months, and we take it seriously” he said in an interview with US TV channel ABC.
"We are monitoring as best we can their strategic posture so that, if we have to, we can alter ours," Kirby explained, adding, however, that Washington had seen "no indication that that's required right now."
Asked about the mobilisation of 300,000 reservists announced by the Russian president, John Kirby said it was "definitely a sign that Putin is struggling” militarily.
Vladimir Putin has "desertion problems, and he's forcing the wounded back into the fight, so clearly manpower is a problem for him,” the former admiral noted.
For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an interview with German broadcaster Bild that he did not think Moscow would use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.
“I do not believe those weapons will be used. I do not believe the world will let it happen,” he said, according to extracts from the interview transcribed by Bild.
“Tomorrow, Putin would be able to say: ‘We want a part of Poland in addition to Ukraine, otherwise we will use nuclear weapons,'” added the Ukrainian president. “We cannot accept this kind of compromission.”
Asked about the annexation referendums Russia plans to organise on Friday in the occupied eastern and southeastern Ukraine, President Zelensky called them a “sham.”
They would not be recognized by 90% of states, he added.