The Kremlin again raised the spectre of the use of nuclear weapons in the war with Ukraine as Russian forces struggled to hold a key city in the south of the country.
Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president who is deputy chairman of the country’s security council, said Moscow could strike against an enemy that only used conventional weapons while Vladimir Putin’s defence minster claimed nuclear “readiness” was a priority.
The comments on Saturday prompted Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in an appearance by video link at Qatar’s Doha Forum to warn that Moscow was a direct threat to the world.
“Russia is deliberating bragging they can destroy with nuclear weapons, not only a certain country but the entire planet,” Zelenskiy said.
Putin established the nuclear threat at the start of the war, warning that western intervention would reap “consequences you have never seen”.
Western officials have said the threats may be simply an attempt to divert attention from the failure of Putin’s forces to secure a swift occupation of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and to make advances in other key areas of the country.
An adviser to Ukraine’s defence ministry, Markian Lubkivskyi, claimed on Saturday that Russia would soon lose control of the southern city of Kherson, the first major centre to fall to the Kremlin since the war began on 24 February.
He said: “I believe that today the city will be fully under the control of Ukrainian armed forces. We have finished in the last two days the operation in the Kyiv region so other armed forces are now focused on the southern part trying to get free Kherson and some other Ukrainian cities.”
Russia has approximately 6,000 nuclear warheads – the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. In an interview on Saturday, Medvedev said Russia’s nuclear doctrine did not require an enemy state to use such weapons first.
He said: “We have a special document on nuclear deterrence. This document clearly indicates the grounds on which the Russian Federation is entitled to use nuclear weapons. There are a few of them, let me remind them to you:
“Number one is the situation, when Russia is struck by a nuclear missile. The second case is any use of other nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies.
“The third is an attack on a critical infrastructure that will have paralysed our nuclear deterrent forces.
“And the fourth case is when an act of aggression is committed against Russia and its allies, which jeopardised the existence of the country itself, even without the use of nuclear weapons, that is, with the use of conventional weapons.”
Medvedev added that there was a “determination to defend the independence, sovereignty of our country, not to give anyone a reason to doubt even the slightest that we are ready to give a worthy response to any infringement on our country, on its independence”.
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, who had not been seen for 12 days before a brief appearance on Friday and an address to his generals on Saturday, also spoke about the nuclear threat contained within Russia’s arsenal.
In a video, uploaded on social media by the Russian defence ministry, Shoigu said he had discussed issues related to the military budget and defence orders with the finance ministry.
He said: “We continue ahead-of-schedule delivery of weaponry and equipment by means of credits. The priorities are long-range, high-precision weapons, aircraft equipment and maintenance of engagement readiness of strategic nuclear forces.”