The United States warns Moscow to expect “catastrophic consequences” if it uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine as Russia vows to protect any regions annexed as a result of widely-criticised referendums.
Votes in four eastern Ukrainian regions, aimed at annexing territory Russia has taken by force, continued into their third day despite shelling by Ukrainian forces.
Russian news agencies claimed the Russian parliament could debate bills to incorporate the new territories as soon as Thursday. State-run media said Putin could address parliament on Friday.
By incorporating the areas of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia into Russia, Moscow could portray efforts to retake them as attacks on Russia itself, a warning to Kyiv and its Western allies.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday the US would respond to any Russian use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine and had spelled out to Moscow the “catastrophic consequences” it would face.
“If Russia crosses this line, there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia. The United States will respond decisively,” Mr Sullivan told NBC.
Russian President Vladimir issued a thinly veiled nuclear threat on Wednesday, saying Russia would use any weapons to defend its territory.
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Saturday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated Moscow’s false claims to justify the invasion – that the elected government in Kyiv was illegitimately installed and filled with neo-Nazis.
Asked if Russia would have grounds for using nuclear weapons to defend annexed regions, Lavrov said Russian territory, including territory “further enshrined” in Russia’s constitution in the future, “is under the full protection of the state”.
Ukraine and its allies have dismissed the referendums as a sham designed to justify an escalation of the war and a mobilisation drive by Moscow after recent battlefield losses.
British Prime Minister Liz Truss said Britain and its allies should not heed threats from Putin, who had not anticipated the strength of reaction from the West.
“We should not be listening to his sabre-rattling and his bogus threats. Instead, what we need to do is continue to put sanctions on Russia and continue to support the Ukrainians,” Truss told CNN on Sunday.
The territory controlled by Russian forces in the four regions represents about 15 per cent of Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces still control some territory in each of the regions, including 40 per cent of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia’s provincial capital.
Heavy fighting continued along the entire front, especially in northern Donetsk and in Kherson.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday there had been “positive results” for Kyiv in some of the clashes.
“This is the Donetsk region, this is our Kharkiv region. This is the Kherson region, and also the Mykolaiv and Zaporizhzhia regions,” he said in his nightly video address.
The general staff of the Ukrainian armed forces said in a statement on Facebook that Russia had launched four missile and seven air strikes and 24 instances of shelling on targets in Ukraine in the past 24 hours, hitting dozens of towns, including in and around the Donetsk and Kherson regions.