MOSCOW — Russia’s foreign minister warned Wednesday that World War III would be “nuclear and destructive,” and its space agency chief said cyberattacks on Russian satellites would justify war, as the escalating rhetoric between Russia and NATO pushed tensions to levels unseen in decades.
It was the first time that top Moscow officials have suggested that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could spill over into a wider European war, after Russian President Vladimir Putin pointedly put the country’s nuclear forces on alert Sunday, citing sanctions and what he called hostile comments from Western officials.
The Russian statements highlight the risk that the confrontation could escalate. Moscow is also angered by Western supplies of weapons to Ukraine.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s latest comments were quoted by Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency. On Tuesday, he claimed that Ukraine was planning to acquire nuclear weapons, although this was denied earlier by Kyiv.
Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos space agency, warned Wednesday that if anyone hit Russian satellites, it would be “a reason to go to war. And we will be looking for those who organized it.”
Andrei Kelin, Russia’s ambassador to London, said a rupture of Moscow-London relations was possible. But he added, “We are not in a state of war.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia’s economy was “under serious pressure” due to the sanctions, but he said Russia had previously calculated the probable impact of Western actions “from the lightest to the harshest.”
However, Moscow appears to have been unprepared for how quickly the Russian brand became toxic to Western business and investors.
According to Peskov, Putin’s popularity has soared since the invasion, although no independent polls have been published.
“We know that the level of support for the president, for the president’s decisions, and his actions is very, very high. We feel that from people’s appeals, from their words of support and particular actions,” Peskov said.
After Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, his popularity reached 82 percent. But analysts say that a similar boost this time is unlikely, with many Russians weary of the Kremlin’s military operations and afraid of a major war.
Peskov said more talks could be held with Ukraine, adding that Putin has set conditions for Russia to end its attacks. These include what he described last week as the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine. He said Wednesday it was necessary to “get rid of” nationalist military formations in Ukraine.