Russia-Ukraine war: Lavrov warns of risk of nuclear conflict

In wide-ranging interview, Russian foreign minister warns world not to underestimate the ‘serious’ risks of a nuclear war over Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attends a conference in Moscow, Russia.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he believes NATO is 'in essence' involved in a proxy war with Moscow [File: Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP]

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned that the conflict in Ukraine risked escalating into a third world war and that NATO was “in essence” engaged in a proxy war with Moscow by supplying Kyiv with weapons.

In a wide-ranging interview broadcast on state television on Monday, Lavrov said the risk of a nuclear conflict must not be underestimated and that the core of any agreement to end the conflict in Ukraine would depend largely on the military situation on the ground.

The interview was aired hours after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv and promised more military assistance to Ukraine. Austin said the United States wanted to see Russia “weakened” and pledged to arm Ukraine to help it win against Moscow.

The US is also due to host a gathering of more than 40 countries this week for Ukraine-related defence talks that will focus on more weapons deliveries.

During Monday’s interview, Lavrov was asked about the importance of avoiding World War III and whether the current situation was comparable to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, a low point in US-Soviet relations.

Russia, Lavrov said, was doing a lot to uphold the principle of striving to prevent nuclear war at all costs.

“This is our key position on which we base everything. The risks now are considerable,” Lavrov said.

“I would not want to elevate those risks artificially. Many would like that. The danger is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it.”

Russia’s two-month-old invasion of Ukraine, the biggest attack on a European state since 1945, has left thousands dead or wounded, reduced towns and cities to rubble and forced more than 5 million people to flee abroad.

Moscow calls its actions a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from Nazis. Kyiv and the West says this a false pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression on a sovereign country by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader early on in the war also put his nuclear deterrent forces on high alert, citing “aggressive statements” from the West.

‘Legitimate target’

Lavrov, defending Moscow’s actions, also blamed Washington for the lack of dialogue.

“The United States has practically ceased all contacts simply because we were obliged to defend Russians in Ukraine,” Lavrov claimed, repeating the rationale for Moscow’s invasion of its southern neighbour.

But he said Western supplies of sophisticated weapons, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, armoured vehicles and advanced drones were provocative measures calculated to prolong the conflict rather than bring it to an end.

“These weapons will be a legitimate target for Russia’s military acting within the context of the special operation,” Lavrov said.

“Storage facilities in western Ukraine have been targeted more than once [by Russian forces]. How can it be otherwise?” he added. “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war.”

He said that Kyiv authorities were not negotiating in good faith and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former actor, was like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in playing to the public rather than addressing the task at hand – negotiations.

“They are similar in a way in their ability to play to the gallery. For example, they imitate negotiations,” Lavrov said.

Nevertheless, he said, Moscow will continue speaking with the Ukrainian negotiating team.

“As in any situation where armed forces are used, of course, everything will end with a treaty, but the parameters of this treaty will be determined by the stage of military actions at which this treaty becomes a reality.”

Lavrov’s comments come after reports emerged that Putin has taken off the table any possibility of signing an agreement with Ukraine following the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet.

The Financial Times newspaper, citing three people briefed on conversations with the Russian president, reported earlier on Monday that Putin now appears set on seizing as much Ukrainian territory as possible.

“He needs to find a way to come out of this a winner,” one of the people said. But “after the Moskva, he doesn’t look like a winner, because it was humiliating”.

The sinking of the Moskva follows Russia’s decision to pull out from Ukraine’s north and abandon plans to seize the capital, its stated goal when it launched the February 24 invasion.

Moscow now says its goal is to take the Donbas, the mostly Russian-speaking industrial region in eastern Ukraine. While both sides say the campaign in the east is underway, Russia has yet to mount an all-out ground offensive and has not achieved any significant breakthroughs.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said late on Monday that Lavrov’s warnings of a nuclear conflict only “meant Moscow senses defeat” and urged the West to keep supporting Kyiv.

“Russia loses last hope to scare the world off supporting Ukraine,” Kuleba wrote on Twitter.

“Thus the talk of a ‘real’ danger of WWIII. This only means Moscow senses defeat in Ukraine. Therefore the world must double down on supporting Ukraine so that we prevail and safeguard European and global security.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies