Russia warns of nuclear war if it is defeated in Ukraine

Threat comes a day before Nato allies meet to discuss sending more military aid to Ukraine

Russia's Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launched during exercises held by the country's strategic nuclear forces at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia. Reuters
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Russia's defeat in Ukraine could start a nuclear war, an ally of President Vladimir Putin has said in a warning to Nato.

The remarks came as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church said the world would end if the West tried to destroy Russia.

As Ukraine's allies meet to discuss supplying Kyiv with more weapons, the threat is intended to deter Nato from becoming even more involved in the war.

But the admission that Russia might lose on the battlefield marked a rare moment of public doubt from a prominent member of Mr Putin's inner circle.

“The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war may trigger a nuclear war,” Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy chairman of Mr Putin's powerful security council, said on Telegram on Thursday.

“Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends,” said Mr Medvedev, who was Russian president from 2008 to 2012.

Striking a similar tone at what he described as an anxious time for the country, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said in a sermon that trying to destroy Russia would mean the end of the world.

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“We pray to the Lord that he bring the madmen to reason and help them understand that any desire to destroy Russia will mean the end of the world,” state news agency RIA quoted him as saying.

“Today is an alarming time. But we believe that the Lord will not leave Russian land.”

Mr Medvedev said Nato and other defence leaders, due to meet at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday to talk about strategy and support for Ukraine, should think about the risks of their policy.

Mr Putin has described Russia's “special military operation” in Ukraine as an existential battle with an "aggressive and arrogant West", and has said Moscow will use all available means to protect itself.

The Kremlin chief has sought in recent months to gird Russians for a much tougher battle while promising eventual victory in a war that the leaders of the West say they will never let him win.

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The US has denied Russian claims that it wants to destroy Russia, while President Joe Biden has cautioned that a conflict between Russia and Nato could spark a Third World War.

But top Putin allies say the tens of billions of dollars' worth of US and European military assistance to Ukraine shows that Russia is now in a confrontation with Nato.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Minsk that Moscow would do everything to ensure Nato and EU leaders “sobered up” as soon as possible.

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Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine has led to one of the deadliest European conflicts since the Second World War, and the biggest confrontation between Moscow and the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

The US and its allies have condemned the invasion as an imperial land grab while Ukraine has vowed to fight until the last Russian soldier is ejected from its territory.

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Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr Medvedev has repeatedly raised the threat of a nuclear war.

However, his admission now of the possibility of Russia's defeat indicates the level of Moscow's concern over increased western weapons deliveries to Ukraine.

Russia and the US, by far the largest nuclear powers, hold about 90 per cent of the world's nuclear warheads.

Asked if Mr Medvedev's remarks signified that Russia was escalating the crisis to a new level, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “No, it absolutely does not mean that.”

He said Mr Medvedev's remarks were in full accordance with Russia's nuclear doctrine, which allows for a nuclear strike after “aggression against the Russian Federation with conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened”.

Updated: January 20, 2023, 10:08 AM