Ukraine’s president tells the BBC “they are not ready to do it… But they begin to communicate.”
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky says Russian officials have begun to “prepare their society” for the possible use of nuclear weapons, but added he does not believe Russia is ready to use them.
In an interview with the BBC, President Zelensky denied having urged strikes on Russia, claiming that an earlier remark had been mistranslated.
“You must use preventive kicks,” he said, referring to sanctions, “not attacks”.
In recent weeks, the Ukrainian army has recaptured large swathes of territory in a successful counter-offensive that has forced Russian troops to abandon long-held positions. In what Kyiv describes as Moscow’s response to its defeats, President Vladimir Putin has incorporated four partially occupied regions of Ukraine.
The annexations, widely dismissed as illegal, have raised fears of a possible escalation in the seven-month war. President Putin and other senior Russian officials have suggested that nuclear weapons – possibly smaller, tactical weapons – could be used to defend those areas, although Western officials say there has been no evidence Moscow is prepared to do so.
Speaking in English at the presidential palace in Kyiv, President Zelensky said: “They begin to prepare their society. That’s very dangerous.
“They are not ready to do it, to use it. But they begin to communicate. They don’t know whether they’ll use or not use it. I think it’s dangerous to even speak about it.”
He denied having called for strikes on Russia during an online event on Thursday, saying the word he had used in Ukrainian had been misunderstood.
The initial comment was denounced by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as “an appeal to start yet another world war”, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it demonstrated why Russia was right to launch its operation in Ukraine.
“After that translation,” President Zelensky said, “they [the Russians] did their way, how it’s useful for them, and began to retranslate it in other directions.”
The interview happened hours after US President Joe Biden said that the Russian threat to use nuclear weapons had brought the world closer to “Armageddon” than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War.
President Zelensky said action was needed now, as Russia’s threats were a “risk for the whole planet”. Moscow, he claimed, had “made a step already” by occupying the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest nuclear station which President Putin is trying to turn into Russian property.
“The world can stop urgently the actions of Russian occupiers,” President Zelensky said. “The world can implement the sanction package in such cases and do everything to make them leave the nuclear power plant.”
Empowered by sophisticated Western-supplied weapons, the Ukrainian army has made significant advances in the east and the south, reclaiming towns and villages even in areas the Kremlin claims are now part of Russia. The setbacks, a major embarrassment for President Putin, have sparked unusual criticism of the country’s military.
Amid the losses, President Putin announced the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of reservists, which led to rare anti-war protests in Russia and to a huge exodus of military-age men.
President Zelensky urged Russians to “fight for your body, rights and soul”, saying: “These mobilised kids now, they come without machine guns, armoured jackets, they are just cannon fodder…. If they don’t want to be kebab… they need to fight [for their lives].
“All Putin is afraid of is not a nuclear strike. He’s afraid of his society, of his people.
“Because only this people can replace him, strip him of his power and give it to another person.”