The spectre of nuclear catastrophe hangs over the war in Ukraine, according to Russia’s own top diplomat.
Speaking on state television earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned Nato countries against sending armaments to Ukraine, suggesting that such support was “pouring oil on the fire” and increasing the risk of confrontation between nuclear powers.
“Everyone is reciting incantations that in no case can we allow World War III,” Lavrov said, insisting that Russia in no way wanted to drift down the path of nuclear strife with what he dubbed the Western “proxy” forces battling Russian troops in Ukraine. But he added that the risk was “Serious. It is real”.
Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin are doing little to extinguish the fire they started. Two months ago, Russia embarked upon an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that has now been bogged down into a bloody, sprawling conflict.
On Tuesday in Moscow, Lavrov and Putin hosted UN secretary-general António Guterres, whose desperate entreaties for an immediate ceasefire and an “end” to the war “as soon as possible” appeared to make little impact.
Putin agreed “in principle” to allow the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross to help evacuate Ukrainian civilians in the besieged Azovstal steel plant, the last redoubt of Ukrainian resistance in the devastated port city of Mariupol.
But no ceasefire looks imminent as Russia continues its campaign in Ukraine’s south and east. After meeting Lavrov, Guterres admitted to reporters that it was “clear that there are two different positions on what is happening in Ukraine”.
What is not happening is any substantive process towards a diplomatic solution. Lavrov said current prospects for a settlement were “dismal”, pinning the blame on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a lack of sincerity in negotiations.
The Ukrainians counter that Russian atrocities against their civilians make any prospect of territorial or political concessions impossible and that, with support from abroad, they are beating Russia on the ground.
In a tweet, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba responded to Lavrov’s doom-mongering over nuclear conflict. “Russia loses last hope to scare the world off supporting Ukraine,” he wrote.
“Thus the talk of a ‘real’ danger of WW III. This only means Moscow senses defeat in Ukraine.” An initial dialogue between the two sides hosted by Turkey looks to have borne little fruit.
A story in the Financial Times, citing sources briefed on conversations with Putin, claimed that the Russian president had “lost interest in diplomatic efforts to end his war” and was particularly irate after Ukraine managed to sink the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Putin appears determined not to be humiliated on the international stage and needs to locate some kind of clear victory in Russia’s shambolic war effort. Ukrainian and Western officials have been sceptical about the Kremlin’s interest in peace talks, suspecting that they were a ruse to help Russia retool for new offensives.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a congressional hearing that he had seen “no sign to date” that Putin is serious about “meaningful negotiations”.
US military officials believe Russia intends, in this next phase of the war, to seize control not just of the eastern Donbas region, but all of southeastern and southern Ukraine, creating a link to annexed Crimea while cutting off Ukraine entirely from the Black Sea. Most observers see the conflict only getting worse.
“Two months into the war against Ukraine there is no end in sight and Russia’s most recent actions even point to an intensification of the fight,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote in a Tuesday blog post.
Everywhere one turns, the fault lines between Russia and the West are growing wider. Russian state energy giant Gazprom moved on Tuesday to suspend gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria for their refusal to pay for this gas in roubles via Russian banks – a stipulation recently decreed by Putin in a bid to counteract the weight of sanctions.
Poland has already made plans to transition off Russian gas imports, while other European governments are accelerating their own. In an ongoing tit-for-tat game with Western governments, Russia also announced a new wave of diplomatic expulsions, including 40 German diplomats this weekend.
Nato countries, meanwhile, are stepping up their deliveries of heavy weaponry to the Ukrainians – recent contributions include British armoured vehicles fitted with anti-air missiles, Dutch armoured howitzers and, significantly, Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns and antitank vehicles from Germany.
Last week, President Joe Biden announced another tranche of $800 million (R12.9 billion) worth of military aid to Ukraine, including heavy artillery and advanced drones.
On Tuesday, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin helped convene a meeting in Germany with military leaders from more than 40 Nato and non-Nato countries, as Western officials sought to better co-ordinate their near-term tactical response to Russia’s southern offensives.
The discussions followed Austin and Blinken’s visit to the Ukrainian capital last weekend. “My trip to Kyiv reinforced my admiration for the way that the Ukrainian armed forces are deploying” the help they are getting, Austin said.
“Ukraine clearly believes that it can win. And so does everyone here.” But, in private, officials are a bit more nervous about the coming weeks. Though some military analysts suggest Russia’s offensive capacity may be close to exhaustion, the Kremlin seems determined to roll the dice and seize as much Ukrainian territory as possible. Kyiv will need outside backing to mount a sustained defence.
“Time is not on Ukraine’s side,” General Mark A Milley, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in closed-door comments provided to reporters travelling with him.
“The outcome of this battle, right here, today, is dependent on the people in this room.”
* Tharoor is a columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post, and writes the Today’s WorldView newsletter and column.