U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed sharp criticism, on Tuesday, of a warning from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov regarding a pending World War III and the possible use of nuclear weapons.
“You’ve heard us say a number of times that that kind of rhetoric is very dangerous and unhelpful,” Austin said following an international conference on supplying weapons to Ukraine held at the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany.
“Nobody wants to see a nuclear war happen. Dangerous rhetoric is clearly unhelpful. And something that we won’t engage in,” he added.
Speaking on Monday, Lavrov said the danger was real and should not be underestimated.
He compared the current situation to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
After the Ramstein meeting that drew in some 40 countries, Austin said that an international contact group to support Ukraine’s military would meet on a monthly basis in the future.
“The contact group will be a vehicle for nations of goodwill to intensify efforts, coordinate assistance and focus on winning today’s fight and the struggles to come,” he said.
The goal was to provide long-term military support to Ukraine beyond the current crisis.
Austin welcomed Germany’s “major decision” to support Ukraine with armoured anti-aircraft systems.
The transfer of 50 of the Cheetah vehicles, known as Gepards in German, marked a “significant” step that brings important additional capabilities to Ukraine, he said.
“We are all determined to help Ukraine win today and build strength tomorrow,” he said, describing the meeting as “an important session on long-term support for Ukraine’s defences, including what that will take from our defence industrial bases.”
The U.S. department of Defence made clear that the conference was not under NATO auspices. Non-members were among those attending.
Many representatives participated via video.
Speaking at the airbase, German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht said Ukrainian soldiers were to be trained to use artillery systems on German soil.
President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine meant that Russia had “taken its leave of the circle of civilised nations,” she said.
The situation remained dire in Ukraine on Tuesday, with officials reporting multiple dead and wounded across the country due to continuing Russian attacks.
The Russian military claimed it had captured the entire southern region of Kherson and made territorial gains in eastern areas.
It also said it had destroyed four Ukrainian ammunition depots in the Slovyansk area through airstrikes.
According to the Ukrainian account on Tuesday evening, there has been little change in Russian attacks or gains in eastern Ukraine.
After Russian forces largely pulled back from Ukraine’s west and north following a stalled invasion and a failed attempt to take the Ukrainian capital Kiev, its forces are now focusing on the east, trying to establish a land corridor between the Donbass.
Much of the Donbass is held by pro-Russian separatists, and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
It is also thought that Russian forces are attempting to encircle the remaining Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine. Doing so would take a large part of Ukraine’s army out of action and be a significant blow to the country’s defences.
Ukraine’s military warned of an activation of Russian troops in the self-proclaimed Republic of Transnistria in Moldova.
Transnistria, which lies on Ukraine’s western border, belongs to Moldova under international law but has been controlled by Russia since 1990.
Should Russian troops from Transnistria and paramilitary groups loyal to Moscow from the region intervene in the war, there is a potential threat of encirclement of Ukrainian forces in the south of the country, especially around the Odessa region.
“The units of the Russian armed forces have been put on full combat readiness,” a report by the Ukrainian general staff published on Facebook on Tuesday evening said.
In addition, the security forces of the Moldovan separatists had also been put on heightened readiness, it said.
This followed several explosions that took down radio towers in Transnistria.
The towers in the region along the border with Ukraine had been used to broadcast Russian radio stations.
On Monday, the Ministry for State Security in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol came under attack, prompting the Transnistrian security council to impose the highest terrorist alert level.
Ukraine accuses Russia of provocative acts with the aim of generating panic.
Also on Tuesday, Belarus announced an unexpected military exercise involving its air force and anti-aircraft troops alongside Russian forces.
The exercise is set to last until Friday, the Defence Ministry in Minsk announced, according to the Interfax news agency.
The leadership of the Russian air force and anti-aircraft forces from Russia’s Western Military District were due to join the manoeuvres, it said.
No further details were provided.
Russia used its close ally Belarus as a staging ground for its invasion of Ukraine and has continued to use the country for attacks on Ukraine since Feb. 24.