Ukraine is planning to stage a nuclear incident on its territory to pin the blame on Moscow ahead of a key United Nations meeting, Russia has alleged without providing evidence.
Radioactive substances have been transported to Ukraine from an unnamed European country and Kyiv was preparing a large-scale “provocation”, Russia’s defence ministry said in a statement on Sunday.
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“The aim of the provocation is to accuse Russia’s army of allegedly carrying out indiscriminate strikes on hazardous radioactive facilities in Ukraine, leading to the leakage of radioactive substances and contamination of the area,” it said.
Russia has repeatedly accused Kyiv of planning “false flag” operations with non-conventional weapons using biological or radioactive materials. No such attack has materialised.
Ukraine and its allies have dismissed such accusations as cynical attempts to spread disinformation, and have accused Moscow of planning incidents itself in a bid to blame Ukraine.
‘Discussions will continue’
Moscow’s allegations came as Ukrainian officials urged United States politicians to press US President Joe Biden’s administration to send F-16 fighter jets, saying the aircraft would boost Ukraine’s ability to hit Russian missile units.
The lobbying came over the weekend on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in talks between Ukrainian officials, including Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, and Democrats and Republicans from the US Senate and House of Representatives.
“They told us that they want [F-16s] to suppress enemy air defences so they could get their drones” beyond Russian front lines, said Senator Mark Kelly, a former astronaut who flew US Navy fighters in combat.
Biden last month said “no” when asked if he would approve Ukraine’s request for F-16s.
Biden administration officials, speaking on Sunday, said the US should focus on providing weapons that can be used immediately on the battlefield, rather than fighter jets that require extensive training.
But they did not categorically rule out providing F-16s.
“Discussions will continue over the course of the next few weeks and months,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on CNN.
The conference – primarily focused on Ukraine – came days before the February 24 anniversary of Russia’s invasion. The sides have been locked in grinding battles, mostly in the eastern Donbas region, following a string of Russian defeats.
Kelly said that while it requires at least a year of training to master all of the F-16’s capabilities, Ukrainian pilots could be taught to do “a limited number of things … in a few months”.
‘Don’t worry about provoking Putin’
Support is building on both sides of the Atlantic for providing Ukraine with advanced NATO-standard jet fighters. The United Kingdom says it would provide training.
Both sides, however, have been reluctant to use their airpower in a significant way since the war began.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said US lawmakers broadly support training Ukrainian pilots on F-16s and said he believed the Biden administration would soon agree to do so.
He said he did not worry that the F-16s would escalate the conflict. “Don’t worry about provoking Putin; worry about beating him,” he said on broadcaster ABC News.
Calls to supply Ukraine with advanced jets follow agreements last month by France, the UK, the US and Germany to supply Kyiv with modern battle tanks.
Washington has provided some $30bn in military aid to Ukraine since the beginning of what Moscow calls its “special military operation”.
Some Western officials have said that Ukraine’s allies should focus less on advanced fighter aircraft and more on basic logistics such as artillery shells.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell issued a stark warning about Ukraine’s dwindling supplies of bullets and similar munitions as it fights back against Russia’s invasion.
“Ukraine is in a critical situation from the point of view with ammunition available,” he said. “This shortage of ammunition has to resolve quickly – it’s a matter of weeks.”
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken alleged China is considering providing weapons to Russia, warning Beijing that any supplies would “cause a serious problem”.
Blinken told CBS News that China was “considering providing lethal support” ranging “from ammunition to the weapons themselves”.
As the debate over weapons supplies intensifies, Russian attacks continue.
Ukrainian troops near the small town of Siversk, in the country’s east, said they were preparing to defend one of the possible targets of a new Russian offensive.
Siversk, which had a prewar population of 10,000, is 35km (21 miles) north of Bakhmut – the scene of fierce fighting in recent weeks – and on a direct road to another of the key towns in the Donetsk region, Sloviansk.
“If they occupied Bakhmut, then we would be semi-encircled, because on the left side we have the Siverskyi Donets River, and the enemy will advance from the right, and it is possible to cut us off if they reach the Bakhmut highway,” said the deputy Siversk battalion commander, who used the nom de guerre “Han”.
One soldier defending Siversk said Ukraine’s mostly Soviet-era artillery was outgunned by the enemy.
“We have one artillery attack from our side and the Russians can do it five times more,” said 30-year-old Stefan. “It’s very difficult for the guys who are standing, especially at the first line [of defence]. They feel it too much.”
Capturing Bakhmut would give Russian forces a stepping stone to advance on two bigger cities further west, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
But Ukraine and its Western allies say success there would be a largely symbolic victory for Moscow, given the time taken and losses sustained.