Ukraine live briefing: NATO slams Russia’s nuclear rhetoric; E.U. threatens Belarus with sanctions

Ukrainian military vehicles in the Kharkiv region in September. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
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NATO called Russia’s nuclear rhetoric “dangerous and irresponsible” on Sunday after Moscow said it planned to store tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, which shares a long border with northern Ukraine.

Oana Lungescu, a spokesperson for the military alliance, said that it was “closely monitoring the situation” as both NATO and the United States said there was no reason to change their nuclear posture. The State Department said the United States is “committed to the collective defense of the NATO alliance,” noting that NATO is a “defensive Alliance which does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to any country.”

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Sunday that if Belarus agreed to host Russian nuclear weapons, it would be a “threat to European security.” “The EU stands ready to respond with further sanctions,” Borrell said on Twitter.

Ukraine’s foreign affairs ministry called for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council to “counter the Kremlin’s nuclear blackmail.”

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

Key developments

  • The United States has “not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture” after Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview that aired Saturday on Russian state TV that the Kremlin would store tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. The United States has not seen “any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon,” said Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman.
  • Putin’s statement on nuclear weapons shows that he “admits that he is afraid of losing & all he can do is scare with tactics,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. Putin is “too predictable,” Podolyak added.
  • Russia has taken “Belarus as a nuclear hostage,” the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said on Twitter on Sunday. He said the move was “a step towards the internal destabilization of the country.”
  • Lithuania’s foreign ministry said the actions of the “two unpredictable dictatorial regimes” are “dragging Belarus further into the war.” In a Sunday statement, the ministry said it would call for new sanctions.
  • Putin likened the move to the United States’ positioning of weapons in Europe. The United States was estimated in 2021 to have about 100 nuclear weapons stored in vaults across Europe, according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Construction on the warehouse in Belarus set to house the Russian weaponry will be completed by July 1, Putin said, according to Reuters.
  • Putin also said: “We are not creating a military alliance with China,” adding that Beijing and Moscow were “working together in military-technical cooperation.”

Battleground updates

  • Russia has likely launched more than 70 Iranian-designed drones against targets across Ukraine since the beginning of March, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Sunday, adding that Moscow “has likely started receiving regular resupplies of small numbers” of the Shahed OWA-UAVs and is likely using them to try to stretch Ukrainian air defenses.
  • A drone caused an explosion Sunday in Russia’s western Tula region, Russian state news agency Tass reported. Citing law enforcement agencies, the outlet said a Ukrainian Tu-141 “Swift” drone caused an explosion that injured three people. Russian press service RIA Novosti reported that three residential buildings had also been damaged.
  • The leader of the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka urged residents to evacuate on Sunday, saying “Russian rockets and projectiles do not spare anyone.” Russian troops have been making bloody gains in the city and surrounding area. Vitaliy Barabash, head of the city, added on Telegram thatAvdiivka is becoming more and more like a place from post-apocalyptic movies.”
  • The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency’s top official will visit Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant this week to get a firsthand look at the facility. “The nuclear safety and security dangers are all too obvious, as is the necessity to act now to prevent an accident,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a statement Saturday. It will be the second time Grossi visits the site and the first since a permanent presence of IAEA experts was established there in September.
  • Ukrainians should not publicly discuss details about counteroffensives, the country’s deputy defense minister said. Hanna Maliar said in a Facebook post that “silence” could give the military the time to do its job, and she appeared to appeal to television journalists by asking people not to discuss military strategy on television. “Information is also a weapon,” she wrote.
  • Moscow plans to produce or upgrade more than 1,600 tanks in three years, Putin said in the interview on Russia-24, a state-owned news channel. He said that while Western governments — which he dubbed “arsonists” — planned to deliver more than 400 tanks to Kyiv, Russia would upgrade and produce more than 1,600 new tanks. The Pentagon announced this week that it will expedite its M1 Abrams shipments to Ukraine, and European allies are sending Leopard battle tanks.

Global impact

  • “I can’t go back now,” former Russian state TV journalist Marina Ovsyannikova said from Paris, when asked by the BBC on Sunday if she would ever return to Russia. Ovsyannikova made headlines last year after she publicly protested Russia’s invasion live on air, causing her to be fined and placed under house arrest for allegedly spreading fake news about the military — which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years. In October, the 44-year-old escaped and fled the country.
  • New Zealand’s foreign minister warned China against providing lethal aid to Russia. On a visit to Beijing, Nanaia Mahuta cautioned her Chinese counterpart against providing such materials to Moscow for Russia’s “illegal invasion” of Ukraine, the Associated Press reported, citing a readout from New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry.
  • In a call with Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for an “immediate” end to the war in Ukraine. The two discussed the “latest developments” in the war during a call, the Turkish government said. Erdogan emphasized the importance of ending the conflict through negotiations. Ankara has positioned itself as a mediator in the war.

From our correspondents

Kyiv doctor killed in Russian airstrike shows war’s fallout far from front: Oksana Leontieva, a 36-year-old doctor who treated patients with cancer and other serious diseases at Ukraine’s top children’s hospital, was running late for work one morning in October.

She dropped off her son at kindergarten as air raid sirens rang out across the city. Just a mile from the hospital, she was killed after a missile strike hit Kyiv, report Missy Ryan, Kostiantyn Khudov and Alice Martins.

One of her colleagues, Olha Daschakovska, said her death was a “murder.” In its wake, her son was left without a mother and her patients were left without their doctor.

“Russia took childhood not just from her son, but from other patients she could have cured,” Daschakovska said.