Nato ‘will respond in kind’ if Russia uses chemical weapons in Ukraine, warns Joe Biden
:: Eastern flank to be bolstered with new battle groups
US president Joe Biden last night declared Nato would respond “in kind” if Vladimir Putin resorted to using chemical weapons against Ukraine.
Asked if a Kremlin-orchestrated chemical attack would prompt a military response, Mr Biden said: “It would trigger a response in kind.”
Mr Biden added: “We would respond. We would respond if he uses it [chemical weapons]. The nature of the response would depend on the nature of the use.”
His remarks came as he met with Nato, G7 and European leaders at a series of emergency summits in Brussels. They discussed what to do if Mr Putin, whose forces are suffering unrelenting daily casualties, decided to unleash weapons of mass destruction.
Leaders were repeatedly asked how they would respond to a chemical attack in Ukraine, after a Western official earlier suggested Nato would not intervene militarily even in the event of such a strike.
“I think it is highly unlikely that Nato would go directly into conflict with Russia because every leader agrees that we’ve got to stop the killing,” the official said. Most believe that Nato entering the conflict directly would only escalate it and increase the suffering, they added.
The official did not rule out a more robust intervention, and said: “I did hear leaders say that use of chemical weapons would fundamentally change the nature of the conflict, and would have to have a very severe response.”
British prime minister Boris Johnson, pressed on the subject in Brussels, left open the possibility of a military response, saying the West’s reaction would be “very, very severe”.
The consequences of Mr Putin launching a chemical strike would be “catastrophic for him”, he said.
Mr Biden’s pledge of a proportionate response to a Russian chemical attack also appeared to mark a toughening in the US stance.
The president has previously been adamantly against any direct military confrontation with Russia, warning that it would spark “World War III”.
Mr Biden denied that he had been wrong to rule out military intervention earlier in the crisis, or that doing so had emboldened Mr Putin.
“No and no,” he said.
He also declined to say if the US had specific intelligence that Mr Putin was about to use chemical weapons.
At the White House, a group of national security officials known as the “tiger team” has been looking at what the threshold for a military response by the US might be.
One US official indicated that if Russia was to use a tactical nuclear device in Ukraine, “all bets are off”.
They are also preparing responses to a strike on a US weapons convoy.
In Brussels, Mr Biden backed excluding Russia from the G20 group of major economies.
He said if that could not be done, then Ukraine should be invited to attend meetings .
He added that Beijing would face consequences if China decided to help the beleaguered Russian economy. Mr Biden said: “China understands that its economic future is much more closely tied to the West than it is to Russia.”
In a statement, Nato leaders said any use by Russia of chemical or biological weapons would be “unacceptable and result in severe consequences”.
Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary-general, said it was stepping up chemical and nuclear defences for its forces in eastern Europe, likely including gas masks and protective suits.
Allies are also supplying hand-held detectors and medical support for unconventional weapons to Ukraine.
Mr Stoltenberg said: “There is also a risk that we can see a spread of chemical agents into Nato territory. I will not speculate beyond the fact that Nato is always ready to defend, to protect and to react to any type of attack on a Nato-allied country.”
In Brussels, Mr Johnson said: “I think it’s fair to say that there isn’t a Western democracy that’s currently contemplating putting boots on the ground in Ukraine.”
In an interview with the BBC last night, Mr Johnson said he believed the Russian president does not want peace, but to “double down” and turn Ukraine’s cities into another Grozny.
Mr Johnson said that Ukraine not being a member of Nato meant it was not inside the “thermonculear umbrella” of the alliance. However, he added that the West wanted to “strengthen the quills of the Ukrainian porcupine” so as to make it “indigestible to Russia”, through providing weapons and intelligence support.
In a video meeting with allied leaders Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, accused Russia of using phosphorus bombs against civilians and called for global protests.
Nato leaders yesterday agreed to strengthen the Alliance’s eastern flank against Russian aggression.
The Alliance signed off on the formation of four new battle groups of between 1,000 and 1,500 troops, up to 6,000 soldiers, at an emergency summit .
They will join the 40,000 troops under its direct command in Europe – already nearly 10 times the number it had a few months ago, before the invasion.
Britain will double its troops in eastern Europe and send a new deployment to Bulgaria.
“This is just the beginning. We must support a free and democratic Ukraine in the long term,” Mr Johnson said.
The new troops will be deployed in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria.
More than 150 British troops will join a new Nato combat unit group in Bulgaria and talks are under way with Italy, said Kiril Petkov, the Bulgarian prime minister, as he hailed the show of strength.
The US has already agreed to provide a Stryker mechanised infantry company for Bulgaria’s unit that will have up to 1,000 troops.
The British army has about 850 troops based in Estonia under the banner Operation Cabrit. The UK is leading a multinational battle group there as part of Nato’s enhanced forward presence.
A further 150 British troops are based in Poland under a US-led Nato deployment.
French president Emmanuel Macron announced that France was deploying an additional 4,050 troops to frontline Nato states and would provide extra help to others, bolstering air defences.
Mr Macron unveiled a deployment of 3,200 soldiers in Norway, including tanks and armoured cars.
Estonia will see its defensive forces bolstered by 350 men and extra fighter jets.
A further 500 troops will also be sent to boost a Nato battle group in Romania which is being led by France, and spy planes are to be deployed in Croatia after a Russian drone crashed and exploded there.
French aerial power including war planes is also being beefed up in Poland, Bulgaria, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, while naval forces in the Mediterranean are to swell by an extra 3,000 marines.
Nato said it would review its defensive posture against Russia at a scheduled June summit in Madrid.
Mr Stoltenberg said the Nato forces would remain in place “as long as necessary” and were “a significant reinforcement” with “air, sea and land forces”.
But Nato leaders gave a cool reception to a request by Mr Zelensky for tanks and jets to lift the sieges on cities such as Mariupol.
The Ukrainian president asked Nato for 1pc of its 20,000 tanks in a “passionate” speech by video to Alliance leaders meeting in the Belgian capital.
Mr Zelensky did not repeat his call for a no-fly zone which has been repeatedly ruled out by Nato because it would risk triggering a war between Russia and Ukraine.
“You can give us 1pc of all your planes, 1pc of all your tanks,” Mr Zelensky said.
“You have at least 20,000 tanks. Ukraine asked for a percent, 1pc of all your tanks to be given or sold to us.”
He added: “But we do not have a clear answer yet.”
Russian forces fired two missiles late on Thursday at a Ukrainian military unit on the outskirts of Dnipro, the fourth-largest city in the country, regional emergency services said.
The strikes destroyed buildings and set off two fires, it said, while the number of those killed and wounded was still being established.
Dnipro is west of the regions along the Russian border that have been controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.
With the war headed into its second month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke of hope and determination in his nighttime video address to the nation late Thursday.
“It is already night. But we are working,” he said in a quiet voice. “The country must move toward peace, move forward. With every day of our defene, we are getting closer to the peace that we need so much. We are getting closer to victory. … We can’t stop even for a minute. For every minute determines our fate, our future, whether we will live.”
He reported on his conversations that day with leaders of NATO and European Union countries gathered in Brussels, and their promises of even more sanctions on Russia.
“We need to look for peace,” he said. “Russia also needs to look for peace.”
Earlier, Zelensky thanked EU leaders for working together to support Ukraine and impose sanctions on Russia, including Germany’s decision to block Russia from delivering natural gas to Europe through the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
But he lamented that these steps weren’t taken earlier, saying there was a chance Russia would have thought twice about invading.
He then appealed to the EU leaders, who had gathered Thursday in Brussels, to move quickly on Ukraine’s application to join the bloc. “Here I ask you, do not delay. Please,” Zelenskyy said by video from Kyiv. “For us this is a chance.”
He then listed the 27 member countries, noting those he said were “for us.” He appealed to Germany and particularly to Hungary not to block Ukraine’s bid.
“Listen, Viktor, do you know what is happening in Mariupol?” Zelensky said, addressing Hungarian President Viktor Orban. “I want to be open once and for all — you should decide for yourself, who you are for.”
Orban is widely considered to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ally among EU leaders.
Zelensky said Ukraine is certain that “in the decisive moment, Germany also will be with us.”
Putin’s threat to have “unfriendly” countries pay for Russian natural gas exports only in rubles from now on has got the not-so-friendly treatment from European Union nations.
Several EU leaders have come out saying it would be a gross violation of their contracts. From German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, they said they would not meet such demands.
The Russian threat is potent since the EU imports 90% of the natural gas used to generate electricity, heat homes and supply industry, with Russia supplying almost 40% of EU gas.
Economists say such a move seems designed to try to support the ruble, which has collapsed against other currencies since Russia invaded Ukraine and Western countries responded with far-reaching sanctions against Moscow.
Making such demands though, would fundamentally change contracts and render them null and void, several European leaders said during the first day of their EU summit.
US president Biden is today expected to offer increased liquid natural gas (LNG) exports to Europe to wean it off Russian gas. However, much US LNG is obtained through environmentally damaging ‘fracking’ and the plan is likely to meet opposition from environmentalists. A plan for an LNG terminal at Shannon has been held up for years over the issue.
Yesterday Boris Johnson said western countries felt “agony” about “about our inability to do more to help given the constraints we face” and said the UK was “looking at what it could do to help”.
He went on: “Logistically at the moment, it looks very difficult both with armour and with jets. We’re very conscious of what he’s asking for at the moment.”
Instead, the UK was looking at “more immediately valuable equipment” such as missiles to defend against airstrikes, ground rocket launchers and heavy artillery, he said.
Mr Stoltenberg, whose term as secretary-general was extended by a year, said leaders had agreed to step up supplies of weapons and equipment but refused to say if tanks would be sent to Ukraine.
Responding to yesterday’s show of unity in Brussels, Moscow said the West had itself to blame for the war by arming the “Kyiv regime”.
The invasion unleashed on February 24 by Russian leader Putin has killed thousands of people and sent 3.6 million abroad, according to the United Nations.
As Mr Biden rallied allies on his first trip abroad since the war began, Washington announced $1bn (€800bn) more humanitarian aid for Ukraine and an offer to take in 100,000 refugees.
Ukraine’s armed forces chief of staff said yesterday Russia was still trying to resume offensives to capture the cities of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv and Mariupol.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin ally, posted on social media that Chechen fighters had captured the main administrative building in Mariupol and raised their flag there. His account could not be confirmed independently.
In Chernihiv, where an airstrike this week destroyed a crucial bridge, a city official, Olexander Lomako, said a “humanitarian catastrophe” is unfolding as Russian forces target food storage places.
He said about 130,000 people were left in the besieged city, about half its pre-war population.
Meanwhile, Ukraine accused Moscow of forcibly taking hundreds of thousands of civilians from shattered Ukrainian cities to Russia, where some may be used as “hostages” to pressure Kyiv to give up.
Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine’s ombudsperson, said 402,000 people, including 84,000 children, have been taken against their will.
The Kremlin gave nearly identical numbers for those who have been relocated, but it said they wanted to go to Russia.
Ukraine’s rebel-controlled eastern regions are predominantly Russian-speaking .
Russian ex-president and deputy head of security council Dmitry Medvedev has said it is "foolish" to believe that Western sanctions against Russian businesses could have any effect on the Moscow government.
The sanctions will only consolidate the Russian society and not cause popular discontent with the authorities, Medvedev told Russia's RIA news agency in an interview.
Some of the sanctions have specifically targeted billionaire businessmen believed to be close to President Vladimir Putin.
"Let us ask ourselves: can any of these major businessmen have even the tiniest quantum of influence of the position of the country's leadership?" Medvedev said.
"I openly tell you: no, no way."
Medvedev said opinion polls showed that three-fourths of Russians supported the Kremlin's decision to carry out a military operation in Ukraine and even more supported President Vladimir Putin.
He lashed out at those Russians who spoke against the invasion while staying outside Russia:
"You can be dissatisfied with some of the authorities' decisions, criticise the authorities - this is normal," he said.
"But you cannot take a stand against the state in such a difficult situation, because this is treason."
Thousands of people were earlier this month detained at Russia-wide protests against Putin's invasion of Ukraine, according to an independent protest monitoring group.
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