Russia is warning of an “extremely dangerous” escalation if NATO deploys heavy weapons such as battle tanks and long-range missile systems to Ukraine.
The cautionary statement from the Kremlin on Thursday came before a key donor meeting as Western countries consider sending more powerful military equipment to Ukraine with Russian forces intensifying attacks to secure territory.
Germany, in particular, has faced mounting pressure to supply tanks to Kyiv and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has aired frustration about not obtaining enough heavy weaponry.
Since the United Kingdom announced last week it will send Challenger 2 tanks, Berlin has faced increasing pressure to supply its Leopard 2 tanks or at least clear the way for others, such as Poland, to deliver the German-made equipment from their own stock.
The Kremlin pressed the West not to give Ukraine heavy weapons capable of striking Russian forces and territory.
“Potentially, this is extremely dangerous. It will mean bringing the conflict to a whole new level which, of course, will not bode well from the point of view of global and pan-European security,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
‘We will destroy it’
On Friday, the United States will gather its allies at its airbase in Ramstein, Germany for a new round of talks on backing Ukraine militarily.
US defence chief Lloyd Austin will host the coordination meeting. He said “we’ll renew our united commitment to support Ukraine’s self-defence for the long haul” – but did not mention specific new equipment.
Western partners fear Ukraine could use long-range weapons to hit deep inside Russian territory or Crimea – a peninsula Moscow annexed in 2014 – despite Kyiv promising it would not do so.
Peskov spoke after Moscow’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, said Russia would retaliate if Ukraine uses Western-supplied weapons to target Russia or the Crimea Peninsula.
“It should become obvious to everyone: No matter what weapons the Americans or NATO supply to the Zelenskyy regime, we will destroy it,” Antonov said. “It is simply impossible to defeat Russia.”
US rhetoric over Ukraine was becoming “more and more belligerent”, he added.
By insisting Crimea is part of Ukraine and saying Kyiv can use US weapons to protect its territory, Washington “is essentially pushing the Kyiv regime to commit terror acts in Russia”, said Antonov.
Separately, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned that the West’s continued support for Ukraine could lead to nuclear war.
“A nuclear power losing in a conventional war can provoke the outbreak of a nuclear war,” Medvedev wrote on the Telegram messaging app. “Nuclear powers have not lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.”
Peskov said Medvedev’s comments were in line with Russia’s nuclear doctrine.
‘We can manage risk’
The commander-in-chief of NATO forces in Europe said the risk of the war in Ukraine escalating due to deliveries of Western battle tanks was manageable.
“Can we manage risk? Yes, absolutely. I believe we can manage risk in general,” US General Christopher Cavoli told reporters on Thursday in Brussels after a NATO Military Committee meeting.
Rob Bauer, chair of the NATO Military Committee, underscored the importance of supplying Ukraine with tanks.
“The Russians are fighting with tanks so the Ukrainians need tanks as well,” he said. “In terms of matching what the enemy has, it is important for the Ukrainians, and in terms of their ambition to regain their own territory.”
Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said it was “time to stop trembling at [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and take the final step”.
“Ukraine needs tanks, tanks – the key to end war properly,” Podolyak said on Twitter.
Earlier this month, the US promised to send its powerful Bradley armoured fighting vehicles, while France offered its highly mobile AMX-10 RCs – offensive weapons Western nations had previously considered off-limits.
Military support for Ukraine will be discussed by representatives of about 50 countries in Ramstein, including all 30 NATO members.
Ukraine’s foreign and defence ministers said the promised UK tanks, while welcome, are “not sufficient to achieve operational goals”.
“We guarantee that we will use these weapons responsibly and exclusively for the purposes of protecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine within internationally recognised borders,” Dmytro Kuleba and Oleksii Reznikov said in a statement, appealing to Germany and other countries that use the Leopard 2 to join an “international tank coalition”.