Western nations’ intervention in Ukraine will be met with a “lightning-quick” military response, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned.
The bellicose threat from Putin came as Russia claimed on Wednesday to have carried out a missile strike in southern Ukraine that destroyed a “large batch” of Western-supplied weapons.
Countries aiding Ukraine “that get it into their heads to meddle in ongoing events from the side and create unacceptable strategic threats for Russia, they must know that our response to counterpunches will be lightning-quick”, said the Russian leader.
“We have all the tools for this that no one else can boast of having,” Putin told lawmakers in St Petersburg, implicitly referring to Moscow’s ballistic missiles and nuclear arsenal.
“We won’t boast about it: We’ll use them if needed and I want everyone to know that. We have already taken all the decisions on this.”
Russia’s leader was not specific but he recently oversaw the successful test of the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, which Russia is soon expected to deploy with the capability for each to carry 10 or more nuclear warheads.
‘They think it’s dangerous’
Putin promised to finish what he called the “special military operation” to sixteen territories from Ukraine, which Moscow considers historically to be Russian. He blamed NATO nations and their allies for instigating the battle currently under way in Ukraine.
“The countries that have historically tried to contain Russia don’t need a self-sufficient, massive country such as ours. They think it is dangerous to them just by means of its existence. But that is far from the truth. They are the ones threatening the whole world,” said Putin.
By launching the offensive in Ukraine, Russian forces neutralized “a real danger of … a major conflict that would have unfolded on our territory according to other people’s scripts”, said Putin.
He alleged NATO planned to use Ukraine as a route to invade Russia through the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and the separatist-held eastern Donbas border region.
“All the tasks of the special military operation we are conducting in the Donbas and Ukraine, launched on February 24, will be unconditionally fulfilled,” Putin said, adding Western attempts to “economically strangle Russia” through sanctions had failed.
On the battlefield on Wednesday, fighting continued in Ukraine’s east along a largely static front line about 480km (300 miles) long. Russia claimed its missiles hit a batch of weapons that the United States and European nations had delivered to Ukraine.
Western officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence findings, said Russia has made slow progress in the Donbas region in the east with “minor gains”, including the capture of villages and small towns south of Izyum and on the outskirts of Rubizhne.
The offensive continues to suffer from poor command, losses of troops and equipment, bad weather, and strong Ukrainian resistance, the officials said.
Some Russian troops have been shifted from the gutted southern port city of Mariupol to other parts of the Donbas. But some remain in Mariupol to fight Ukrainian forces holed up at the Azovstal steel plant, the last stronghold in the city. About 1,000 civilians were said to be taking shelter there with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian defenders.
Just across the border in Russia, an ammunition depot in the Belgorod region burned on Wednesday after several explosions were heard, the governor said.
Explosions were also reported in Russia’s Kursk region near the Ukrainian border, and authorities in Russia’s Voronezh region said an air defense system shot down a drone.
‘Weaponization of energy supplies’
Polish and Bulgarian leaders accused Moscow of using natural gas to blackmail their countries after Russia’s state-controlled energy company stopped supplying them on Wednesday. European Union leaders echoed those comments and were holding an emergency meeting on the Russian move.
Simone Tagliapietra, senior fellow at the Bruegel think-tank in Brussels, said Russia’s goal in cutting off the flow of gas is to “divide and rule” – pit European countries against one another as they cast about for energy.
The cutoff and the Kremlin warning that other countries could be next sent shivers of worry through the 27-nation European Union.
Germany, the largest economy on the continent, and Italy are among Europe’s biggest consumers of Russian natural gas, though they have already been taking steps to reduce their dependence on Moscow.
“It comes as no surprise that the Kremlin uses fossil fuels to try to blackmail us,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
“Today, the Kremlin failed once again in its attempt to sow division amongst member states. The era of Russian fossil fuel in Europe is coming to an end.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told the Polish parliament he believes Poland’s support for Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia were the real reasons behind the gas cutoff. Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov called the suspension blackmail, adding: “We will not succumb to such a racket.”
Fatih Birol, executive director of the Paris-based International Energy Agency, said the cutoff was a “weaponisation of energy supplies”.
Europe is not without some leverage in the dispute, since it pays Russia $400ma day for gas, money Putin would lose with a complete cutoff.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said a Russian demand to switch to paying for gas in rubles instead of euros or US dollars resulted from Western actions that froze Russian hard currency assets.
He said those were effectively “stolen” by the West in an “unprecedented unfriendly action”.