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Russia warns of nuclear tensions as U.S., NATO officials meet in Germany

Ukrainian officials pleaded Tuesday for more weapons as the U.S. and other Western defense ministers met in Germany amid Russian warnings that the threat of nuclear war “should not be underestimated” if NATO nations keep arming the embattled country.

Speaking on Russian TV after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said, following a visit to Kyiv, that the U.S. wanted Russia permanently “weakened,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Washington of escalating tensions.

“I would not want to elevate those risks artificially. Many would like that. The danger is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it,” Lavrov said. “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war.”

Russia expanded its assault on southern and eastern regions of Ukraine overnight, saying it killed 500 “enemy personnel” — a claim that could not be verified — as Ukraine cited fresh attacks on civilians as well as military sites. Moscow said it hit military targets in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, where routine bombings in residential zones have made civilian funerals a part of everyday life.

A building heavily damaged by Russian strikes remains standing in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)

“Russian troops have launched an offensive in all directions,” said Alexei Arestovych, an advisor to Ukrianian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Arestovych said that Russians were zeroing in on Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in the east in the Donetsk area and Kryvyi Rih — Zelensky’s hometown — in the south, near Kherson.

The British Defense Ministry said Tuesday that Russians had also overtaken the city of Kreminna, in the Luhansk region, though Ukraine did not confirm the city’s fall.

In the central Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, regional officials said two missiles struck Tuesday, killing at least one person.

In Kherson, which was the first city of note to fall to Russian fighters early in the war, Russia has scheduled a vote this week on the creation of a so-called independent “Kherson People’s Republic.”

The move, which Zelensky called a “sham referendum,” would follow a long-term Russian strategy of fomenting unrest in the eastern region of Donbas, where pro-Russia separatists have already declared breakaway republics in Luhansk and Donetsk. Moscow cites “liberating” ethnic Russians as among its motivations in launching its invasion of a neighboring nation the size of Texas.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks by video from Kyiv on Monday.

(Ukrainian Presidential Press Office)

The war, now in its third month, has left mass graves and rubble in cities and towns across Ukraine, including Kyiv and the southern port of Mariupol, which Russia claimed victory over last week even as a group of holdout Ukrainian troops remain holed up in a sprawling steel plant.

Kyiv, the capital, which has largely been spared attack over the last month as Russia shifted its offensive south and east, imposed a nightly curfew this week amid increasing concerns about further violence.

In an overnight video address, Zelensky said Ukraine — which has lost around 3,000 troops compared to unconfirmed estimates of up to 15,000 deaths among the Russians — would keep fighting to “make the occupiers’ stay in our land even more intolerable” by depleting Russian resources.

Zelensky and Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, have dismissed the Russian warnings of nuclear conflict.

“Russia loses last hope to scare the world off supporting Ukraine,” Kuleba tweeted. “Thus, the talk of a ‘real’ danger of WWIII. This only means Moscow senses defeat.”

In Germany, Austin described Ukraine as “fighting a war of necessity to defend its democracy, its sovereignty and its citizens.”

“Russia’s invasion is indefensible and so are Russian atrocities,” said the Pentagon chief, who began meeting with other Western defense officials for a summit at the U.S. air base in Ramstein.

Gathering of Western defense ministers in Germany

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, rear center, hosts a meeting of Western defense officials at the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany, on Tuesday.

(Michael Probst / Associated Press)

Representatives from more than 40 countries, including major European nations as well as Turkey and Israel, are attending the gathering in person. South Africa and Japan are participating virtually.

The summit’s agenda focuses on accelerating the supply of arms to Ukraine. Germany, one of the group’s key members, is expected to announce later Tuesday that it will for the first time send air-defense tanks to Ukraine.

Ukrainian leaders, who did not succeed in earlier attempts to secure a NATO-enforced no-fly zone to prevent Russian attacks, have redoubled their efforts on asking for more and deadlier armaments.

“We say again and again: weapon, weapons, weapons! We need weapons to keep standing and defending the values of humankind,” Lesia Vasylenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, tweeted Tuesday.

The U.S., which announced an additional $300 million in aid to Ukraine on Monday, has so far pledged billions in materiel and humanitarian assistance.

Also on Tuesday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is scheduled to arrive in Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lavrov, the foreign minister. Guterres, who says he wants to negotiate a cease-fire, faces difficult prospects in a war that has raged without pause through multiple rounds of negotiations. Guterres is to travel Thursday to Kyiv to meet Zelensky.

The war has resulted in a refugee crisis unseen since World War II, with 5.2 million people fleeing Ukraine. More than 8 million have been internally displaced.

Kharkiv, which lies about 25 miles from the Russian border, has been among the hardest-hit cities, with near-daily shelling since fighting began Feb. 24.

On Tuesday, a road on Kharkiv’s outskirts was full of hundreds of people lined up before the boarded-up, skeletal husk of a half-constructed church, where aid workers with the Noah’s Ark Church organization were distributing food.

“Please don’t push. There’s enough food for everyone. Be calm, praise God and glory to Ukraine,” said one man in cap and sunglasses who stood at the gate to manage the crowd.

Inside were pallets loaded with bags of potatoes and onions and boxes of apples. To the side were plastic bags with various toiletries and cleaning products. There were also items that reflected the difficulty of maintaining a semblance of ordinary life in a city pummeled daily by Russian forces: cleaning products, matches, small candles.

“There’s a lot of need right now. Some of these people have been lining up since 4 a.m,” said Andrey Varakuta, a 30-year-old aid worker. “We do this three times a week. Every time we do it, more and more people show up.”

Bulos reported from Kharkiv and Kaleem from London.

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