Nato leaders are preparing to send equipment to Ukraine for use in defending against chemical and nuclear weapons, the head of the alliance Jens Stoltenberg has said.
Speaking on Wednesday, Stoltenberg said the group was expected to agree at a summit the following day to provide Ukraine with “additional support”, including equipment to “protect against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats” as well as cyber security assistance.
The initiative would be the first time Nato member states have sent supplies to Ukraine specifically to counter weapons of mass destruction amid rising fears in western capitals that Moscow could use them.
“We are concerned about the use of chemical or biological weapons,” Stoltenberg said, adding that Nato had noted “nuclear sabre-rattling” by Russian president Vladimir Putin. “Any use of chemical weapons would totally change the nature of the conflict . . . and have far-reaching consequences.”
US president Joe Biden said ahead of a visit to Europe that there was a “real threat” Russia could use chemical weapons in Ukraine.
Biden, who is due to arrive in Brussels at about 9pm local time on Wednesday, will attend the Nato summit as well as meetings with EU and G7 allies aiming to increase support for Kyiv and tighten the financial squeeze on Russia’s economy with more sanctions. Biden will also travel to Poland.
While warning that the war “will not end easily or rapidly”, Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, said the expected measures would include new financial curbs and steps to “crack down on evasion and ensure robust enforcement” of existing sanctions, which are the most punitive ever imposed on a major world economy.
But German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stood firm on Germany’s resistance to an immediate embargo of Russian fossil fuels on Wednesday. Scholz told the Bundestag that immediately cutting imports of Russian energy supplies would trigger an economic crisis.
“To do that from one day to the next would mean plunging our country and the whole of Europe into a recession,” he warned. “Hundreds of thousands of jobs would be at risk. Entire branches of industry are on the brink.
“Sanctions must not hit European states harder than Russian leadership,” he added.
Russia denounced reports that the US and its western allies were pushing to expel Russia from the G20 meeting in Indonesia later this year, saying President Vladimir Putin still intended to attend. “The reaction of the west is absolutely disproportional,” said Lyudmila Vorobyova, Russia’s ambassador to Jakarta.
Earlier in the day Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, hailed his troops for taking back territory from Russian forces.
The Ukrainian military has mounted a series of limited counter attacks in recent days, claiming to retake Makariv on the outskirts of the capital Kyiv, as well as pushing back occupying forces around the southern city of Kherson.
In his regular overnight address on Wednesday, Zelensky praised his forces who had “defeated” and dislodged Russian soldiers around Kherson while warning that Russia’s brutal shelling meant there was “nothing left” of Mariupol, a port city that has borne the brunt of the war.
Beset with supply problems, poor logistics and facing stubborn Ukrainian resistance, Russia’s advances have largely come to a standstill in Ukraine, according to western intelligence assessments of the month-long campaign.
Partly as a result of significant losses, one senior US defence official estimated Russia’s troop presence in Ukraine had begun to decline significantly, for the first time falling below 90 per cent of the original 150,000-strong invasion force deployed along Ukraine’s borders.
Zelensky said 100,000 civilians remained trapped in Mariupol, enduring “inhumane conditions”. “A complete blockade,” he said. “No food, no water, no medicine. Under constant shelling, under constant bombing.” Around 7,000 civilians were evacuated on Tuesday, he added.
Russian troops are attempting to grind down resistance in Mariupol to consolidate territory along Ukraine’s coast, but Ukrainian and western officials said the defence of the city continued.
The Pentagon noted there were indications Ukraine was “willing and able” to take back territory from Russia, but the senior defence official did not verify reports of Russian troops being pushed out of Makariv.
Taking control of Makariv would place Ukrainian troops at an important crossroads to the west of Kyiv, allowing them to pressure supply routes to Russian forces.
Russia’s troops over the past week have taken defensive positions within artillery range of Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s biggest cities. Early on Wednesday, Russian forces shelled a shopping mall and other commercial and residential buildings on the outskirts of Kyiv, according to the local authorities. They also bombed a bridge over the river Desna that connected Kyiv with Chernihiv, north of the capital, said the regional military administration.
A UK intelligence update on Wednesday noted that while the battlefield across Ukraine remained largely static, Russian forces were “likely conducting a period of reorganisation before resuming large-scale offensive operations”.
The UK Ministry of Defence noted Putin’s troops were “attempting to envelop Ukrainian forces in the east of the country” by advancing from the direction of Kharkiv in the north and Mariupol in the south.
Officials in Kyiv have issued further warnings on the “possibility” of troops from neighbouring Belarus crossing the border, opening a new front.
Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of Belarus, has allowed Russia to use his country’s territory to invade Ukraine. In an update on Wednesday, Ukraine’s military noted “the active movement of Russian and Belarusian military equipment and its further accumulation along the Ukrainian border”.
But it added that “a large number of personnel as well as some commanders are refusing to participate in the occupation of [Ukraine]”. While the claim cannot be independently verified, one senior western diplomat in Ukraine said Belarusian generals were reluctant to deploy soldiers who had never fought a war outside its borders. “They know they are poorly trained and equipped,” said one.