Moscow says it is effectively at war with NATO – and has warned that Western weapons are inflaming the conflict in Ukraine.
Speaking on the 61st day of the war, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said continual deliveries of supplies and weaponry to Ukraine means the NATO alliance has positioned itself as “in essence engaged in war with Russia” and accused the organisation of “pouring oil on the fire”.
The diplomat also warned against provoking a third world war and said the threat of a nuclear conflict “should not be underestimated”.
Mr Lavrov said weapons supplied by Western countries “will be a legitimate target”, adding that Russian forces had already hit weapons warehouses in western Ukraine.
“Everyone is reciting incantations that in no case can we allow World War Three,” Mr Lavrov said in a wide-ranging interview on Russian television. He accused Ukrainian leaders of provoking Russia by asking NATO to become involved in the conflict.
Mr Lavrov went on: “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy.
“War means war.”
But armed forces minister James Heappey has said it is not inevitable that Russia will take parts of the eastern Donbas region, where Moscow has now been focussing its efforts.
Speaking to Sky News, he said the region will be an “extraordinarily difficult nut for the Russians to crack” and there is “every chance the Ukrainians can see them off”.
This comes after it was announced the US would be allocating a further $713m (£560m) in military aid – but that this would not go to Ukraine directly, but to members of NATO.
Mariupol to be discussed as UN chief meets Putin
Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is scheduled to visit Russia today and Ukraine later this week.
Mr Guterres, who has been pushing for a humanitarian truce in Ukraine, is due to meet Vladimir Putin in Moscow later today and then with Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday.
The city of Mariupol, which has been heavily damaged during the war, will feature in the talks in Moscow, according to Russia’s RIA news agency.
Earlier Mr Lavrov had also claimed there was a “considerable” risk of the conflict escalating to nuclear weapons.
However, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba dismissed the comments as bravado, writing on Twitter after Mr Lavrov’s interview: “This only means Moscow senses defeat.”
In key developments:
US ramps up weapons sent to Ukraine
Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, but its forces have now fully withdrawn from around the capital Kyiv and much of northern Ukraine to Belarus and back to Russia.
The port city of Mariupol is now mostly under the control of Russian forces and a large-scale Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine has now begun with the aim of the “complete liberation” of the Donbas – the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
On Monday, the US said it will again ramp up the amount of military kit it is sending to Ukraine.
The State Department used an emergency declaration to approve the potential sale of $165m (£129m) worth of ammunition including artillery ammunition for howitzers, tanks and grenade launchers. It also said it will provide more than $300m (£235m) in financing to buy more supplies.
And US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin appeared to signify a shift in broader US strategic goals when he said after the announcement, that while the US wanted to see Ukraine remain a sovereign, democratic country, it also wanted “to see Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine”.
The conflict in Ukraine, the biggest attack on a European state since 1945, has left thousands dead or injured, reduced towns and cities to rubble, and forced more than five million people to flee abroad.