NATO chief calls Putin’s nuclear threat a ‘dangerous’ escalation

NEW YORK: President Vladimir Putin’s thinly veiled threat to use nuclear weapons after Russian setbacks in Ukraine was “dangerous and reckless rhetoric”, NATO’s secretary general said on Wednesday (Sep 21), adding that the only way to end the war was to prove Moscow will not win on the battlefield.

Jens Stoltenberg also told Reuters in an interview that Putin’s announcement of Russia’s first military mobilisation since World War II would escalate the conflict and cost more lives. But, the NATO chief added, it also represented evidence that Putin had made a “big mistake” with Russia’s decision to invade its neighbour on Feb 24.

Stoltenberg, speaking to Reuters Editor in Chief Alessandra Galloni in New York on the margins of the annual United Nations General Assembly meetings, said the 30-nation Western defence alliance will stay calm and “not engage in that same kind of reckless and dangerous nuclear rhetoric as President Putin”.

“The only way to end this war is to prove that President Putin will not win on the battlefield. When he realises that, he has to sit down and negotiate a reasonable agreement with Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said.

In an address to Russians earlier, Putin announced he would call up 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine and backed a plan to annex parts of the country, hinting to the West he was prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia.

“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will use all available means to protect our people – this is not a bluff,” Putin said.

Russia possesses “lots of weapons to reply”, Putin added.

Putin’s speech followed mounting casualties and battlefield setbacks for Russian forces, who have been driven from areas they had captured in northeast Ukraine in a Ukrainian counter-offensive this month and are bogged down in the south.

“The speech of President Putin demonstrates that the war is not going according to President Putin’s plans,” Stoltenberg said.

“He made a big mistake, strategic mistake,” Stoltenberg said of Putin, while making a grim prediction.

“More troops will escalate the conflict. That will mean more suffering, more loss of lives – Ukrainian lives, but also Russian lives,” Stoltenberg said.

Putin said, offering no evidence, that officials in NATO member states had threatened to use nuclear weapons against Russia, and that Russia “also has various means of destruction”.

NATO has not seen any change in Russia’s nuclear posture and readiness, Stoltenberg said, but added that the key was to prevent such an escalation.

“We will make sure that there is no misunderstanding in Moscow about the seriousness of using nuclear weapons … And that’s the reason why we have been so clear in our communications with Russia about the unprecedented consequences, about the fact that the nuclear war cannot be won by Russia.”