Any use of nuclear weapons by Russia in Ukraine will have serious consequences but NATO will not spell out exactly how it would respond, the alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said.
“It will have severe consequences if Russia uses any kind of nuclear weapon against Ukraine,” Mr Stoltenberg told reporters.
“We will not go into how exactly we will respond but of course this will fundamentally change the nature of the conflict. It will mean that a very important line has been crossed.
“Even any use of a smaller nuclear weapon will be a very serious thing, changing the nature of the war in Ukraine.”
Mr Stoltenberg said NATO would remain “very vigilant” in the coming weeks as Russia holds its own nuclear drills.
He said the fundamental purpose of NATO’s nuclear deterrent was to preserve peace and prevent coercion against its allies, and so the circumstances under which it might have to use nuclear weapons were “extremely remote”.
NATO allies have been meeting in Brussels, and have unveiled plans to jointly beef up Europe’s air defences.
“We are living in threatening, dangerous times,” said German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht at a signing ceremony, where Germany and more than a dozen European NATO members committed to jointly procure weapons for a “European Sky Shield”, to better protect their territory.
Moscow renewed warnings that more military aid for Kyiv, agreed earlier this week at the NATO meeting, made members of the US-led military alliance “a direct party to the conflict,” and said admitting Ukraine to the alliance would trigger a World War.
“Kyiv is well aware that such a step would mean a guaranteed escalation to a World War Three,” deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Alexander Venediktov, told the state TASS news agency.
Moscow has repeatedly justified the 24 February invasion that has killed tens of thousands of people, in what it calls a “special operation”, by saying Ukraine’s ambitions to join the alliance posed a threat to Russia’s security.
NATO is not likely to quickly allow Ukraine to join, not least because its membership during an ongoing war would put the United States and allies into direct conflict with Russia under the alliance’s collective defence clause.
Washington and other NATO members have provided Ukraine with weapons to fight Russia and imposed sweeping economic sanctions but have tried to avoid more direct involvement in the war.
Shortly after Russia’s assault began Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signalled he was willing to consider neutrality.
Mr Zelensky has since asked for fast-track membership of NATO, hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed partially occupied regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia as Russian land on 30 September.
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The annexation sparked international outrage. On Wednesday the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a resolution condemning it as “illegal”.
In the past 24 hours, Russian missiles have hit more than 40 Ukrainian settlements, while the Ukrainian air force carried out 32 strikes on 25 Russian targets, Ukraine’s Armed Forces General Staff said.
The southern port city of Mykolaiv came under massive bombardment, local officials said.
“It is known that a number of civilian objects were hit,” regional governor Vitaly Kim said in a social media post.
He said the top two floors of a five-story residential building were completely destroyed and the rest were under rubble.
Video footage provided by state emergency services showed rescuers pulling from under the rubble an 11-year-old boy, who Mr Kim said had spent six hours trapped under the debris.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office said three people were killed in the strike.
Russia also targeted a settlement in the region of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, where three drone strikes hit critical infrastructure early today, the region’s administration said on Telegram.
Governor of the Kyiv region, Oleksiy Kuleba, said that based on preliminary information the strikes were caused by Iranian-made loitering munitions, often known as “kamikaze drones”.
Ukraine has reported a spate of Russian attacks with the Shahed-136 drones in recent weeks.
Iran denies supplying the drones to Russia, while the Kremlin has not commented.
Missiles struck about 30 multi-storey buildings and houses, gas pipelines and power lines in the city of Nikopol in the Dnipropetrovsk region, leaving more than 2,000 families without electricity, regional governor Valentyn Reznichenko wrote on Telegram.
Reuters was not able to immediately verify the reports.
As his forces suffered several setbacks since September, Mr Putin has ordered the call-up of hundreds of thousands of reservists and repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons to protect Russia, including regions annexed last month.