Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned that Russian government officials have begun to “prepare their society” for the possible use of nuclear weapons, saying the world must act now even though he doesn’t believe that Russia is ready to use them now.
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.
Zelensky denied calling for military strikes on Russia, to prevent them using weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine, claiming that an earlier interview he granted had been mistranslated.
“You must use preventive kicks,” he said, referring to sanctions, “not attacks”.
Speaking in English at the president’s office in Kyiv, President Zelensky said to BBC: “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.”
Then, in Ukrainian, he said through a translator: “What we see is that Russia’s people in power like life and thus I think the risk of using nuclear weapons is not that definite as some experts say, because they understand that there is no turning back after using it, not only the history of their country, but themselves as personalities.”
The initial comment by Zelensky 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.”
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.
Around 500 Russian troops were at the plant, he said, although the Ukrainian staff still operate it.
“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.”
President Zelensky said Russian forces were putting up a “good enough fight”, but that Ukraine had received weapons – “I won’t say we have enough now” – and soldiers were motivated to push forward.
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.
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 said. “He’s afraid of his society, of his people.
“Because only these people can replace him, strip him of his power and give it to another person.”