US President Joe Biden said on Thursday the world faces a nuclear ‘Armageddon’, warning that Vladimir Putin could use his atomic arsenal as Russian troops battle a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
After invading Russia eight months ago, Putin made thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons if he felt he had no options in his bid to seize swaths of the country. of Ukrainian territory in the face of strong resistance from Kyiv, the western rear.
“We haven’t faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis” in 1962, Biden said Thursday in New York, adding that “we’re trying to figure out what Putin’s exit ramp is.” .
While experts say any nuclear attack would likely be relatively small, Biden warned that even a tactical strike in a limited area would still risk triggering a wider conflagration.
Putin “is not joking when he talks about the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons, because his army is, one might say, grossly underperforming,” he said.
Ukraine’s proclaimed victories in the southern region of Kherson are the latest in a string of Russian defeats undermining the Kremlin’s claim to have annexed around 20% of Ukraine.
“More than (500 square kilometers) have been liberated from Russian occupiers in the Kherson region alone” since the beginning of October, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced Thursday evening in his nightly speech.
The recaptured territory was home to dozens of towns and villages that had been occupied by Russian forces for months, Southern Army Command spokeswoman Natalia Gumeniuk said.
Kherson, a region with an estimated pre-war population of around one million people, was captured early and easily by troops from Moscow after their invasion launched on February 24.
Russian-installed officials renewed their appeal to residents to remain calm, with pro-Moscow deputy leader Kirill Stremousov saying Kremlin forces were holding back the advance.
But the Kremlin pushed on – Russian missiles hit the central industrial city of Zaporizhzhia early Thursday, killing several civilians. Rescuers searched the rubble with their bare hands in search of survivors, AFP journalists said.
Addressing a meeting in Prague of European heads of state, Zelensky called on Western capitals to provide his army with more weapons “to punish the aggressor”.
Ukraine must repel the invasion of Moscow “so that Russian tanks do not advance on Warsaw or even on Prague”, he said.
– ‘Pure hate’ –
The EU has imposed its latest round of sanctions on Russia, expanding bans on trade and individuals following Moscow’s formal annexation last Friday of four Ukrainian regions.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it had summoned the French ambassador to Moscow, pointing to the “threats posed” by the increased military support Paris was offering Kyiv.
On Thursday, just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the southern front artillery battles, seven Russian missiles hit downtown Zaporizhzhia.
“The death of seven residents (…) has been confirmed and at least five other people are considered missing,” said Oleksandr Starukh, regional governor of Zaporizhzhia.
“Currently the dismantling of the rubble continues.”
A woman, whose body was carefully pulled from the rubble by rescuers, appeared to be sleeping in her bed when the building around her was destroyed.
“For the first time in my life, I feel pure hatred,” said Igor Osolodko, a 25-year-old musician, one of dozens of volunteer rescuers.
Ukraine’s military also said it was reclaiming territory in the eastern regions of Lugansk and Donetsk, which have been partially controlled by Kremlin proxies since 2014.
Ukrainian forces have made gains on the west bank of the Dnieper River that runs through Kherson, but the Russian military said in a briefing on Thursday that its forces had repelled “repeated attempts to break through our defences” in the area.
Further west, on Ukraine’s line of contact with Russian forces in the Mykolaiv region – where Kyiv forces had been cowering in holes for months and pounded by Russian artillery – the mood was changing. with the front lines.
– “The end of the tunnel” –
Bogdan, 29, from northwestern Ukraine who re-enlisted in the army this year, spent most of the summer holding the line in Mykolaiv, about four kilometers from the Russians.
“We see their successes and that inspires us,” he said of Ukrainian advances elsewhere in the country.
The deeper Ukrainian push into Kherson puts further pressure on the Kremlin’s announcement last week that it had annexed the territory – alongside three others – and that its residents were Russian “forever”.
The four territories – Donetsk, Kherson, Lugansk and Zaporizhzhia – create a land corridor between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014.
Together, the five regions represent approximately 20% of Ukraine.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Russian forces of “deliberately hitting civilians to sow fear”.
In Russia, opponent Vladimir Kara-Murza, imprisoned in April for denouncing the war, has been charged with high treason, his lawyer told the TASS news agency.
The head of the UN nuclear agency was meanwhile in Kyiv to discuss the creation of a safety zone around the Ukrainian atomic power plant in Zaporizhzhia – the largest in Europe – after Putin ordered his government to seize it.
Rafael Grossi said on Thursday it was “obvious” that the Russian-controlled factory belonged to Ukraine.
Bombings have hit its neighborhood in recent months, with Ukraine and Russia blaming each other for attacks that have raised fears of a nuclear disaster.
Grossi is visiting the Ukrainian capital ahead of a visit to Russia.