Accused by Europe and Nato of launching a full-scale invasion of eastern Ukraine, the Russian leader boasted to a group of Russian youngsters that “It’s best not to mess with us.”
In language not seen since the height of the Cold War, he told his audience: “Thank God, I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia. I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.”
Mr Putin’s comments, made during a visit to a pro-Kremlin youth camp on the banks of a lake outside Moscow, will horrify Western governments as they try to bring Russia into check. Even during the height of Cold War hostilities, few Kremlin leaders ever resorted to the direct mentions of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
He made his remarks as European leaders prepare to gather tomorrow for an emergency summit to discuss further sanctions on Moscow over the appearance in the last few days of more than 1,000 regular Russian troops in eastern Ukraine.
The soldiers are believed to be the backbone of a lightning counter-offensive that has seen pro-Kremlin rebels in eastern Ukraine claw back large swathes of territory from Ukrainian government forces in recent days, dramatically turning the tide in the four-month conflict.
A major battle is expected in the port city of Mariupol in coming days, where Ukrainian forces are dug in in anticipation of a full-scale assault by rebels backed by the Kremlin’s forces. The escalation in the conflict is the most serious since the pro-Russian uprising began, and has dashed Western hopes that the sanctions on the Kremlin had forced it to gradually abandon its support for the rebels.
On Friday, Poland accused Russia of waging a full-scale “war” in eastern Ukraine, while Germany warned that the conflict was spiralling “out of control”. Speaking after a special emergency summit to discuss the crisis, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato secretary general, said Russia could no longer pretend that it did not have “direct” involvement in the conflict.
“Despite Moscow’s hollow denials, it is now clear that Russian troops and equipment have illegally crossed the border into eastern and south-eastern Ukraine…” he said. “Russian forces are engaged in direct military operations inside Ukraine. Russia continues to supply the separatists with tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery and rocket launchers. Russia has fired on Ukraine from both Russian territory and within Ukraine itself.
Moreover, Russia continues to maintain thousands of combat-ready troops close to Ukraine’s borders. This is a blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
At a Nato summit in the Welsh city of Newport next week, Nato leaders will meet Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s new president, to make clear what Mr Rasmussen described as their “unwavering support” for Ukraine.
Diplomatic sources have told the Daily Telegraph that Ukraine will ask for a package of “non-lethal” aid including thousands of set of new uniforms, helmets, body armour and communications gear. Ukrainian defence chiefs also want access to sophisticated US and Nato satellite images of Russian troop positions. However, despite
However, while Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk said on Friday that Ukraine would now seek to join Nato, sources within the organisation said that it would be unlikely happen.
Any such move would oblige Nato to come to Ukraine’s immediate defence against Russia.
A Nato source said: “Ukraine is not an ally. Nato may respect Ukraine’s decision if it seeks membership but the Alliance is not going to accelerate in that direction.”
In his comments to the youth group in Friday, Mr Putin defended Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula last March, claiming it was essential to save a largely Russian-speaking population from Ukrainian government aggression.
“Russia is far from being involved in any large-scale conflicts,” he said at the camp on the banks of Lake Seliger. “We don’t want that and don’t plan on it. But naturally, we should always be ready to repel any aggression towards Russia.
He also alleged that Russians in eastern Ukraine were now subjected to “crude military force” from government planes, tanks and artillery, and criticised the Kiev government’s decision to seek European Union membership.
“If those are contemporary European values, then I’m simply disappointed in the highest degree,” he said, comparing Ukraine’s military operations in the east of the country with the Nazi siege of Leningrad in World War Two.
“Small villages and large cities surrounded by the Ukrainian army which is directly hitting residential areas with the aim of destroying the infrastructure … It sadly reminds me of the events of the Second World War, when German fascist … occupiers surrounded our cities.”