KYIV — US President Joseph R. Biden said on Wednesday he doubted whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would use a tactical nuclear weapon as Ukraine pleaded for a rapid increase in Western military aid to defend against missile strikes on its cities.
Explosions rocked the Russian-occupied southern towns of Kherson and Melitopol and air raid sirens blared over Kyiv, two days after Russia unleashed a barrage of missiles on Ukrainian towns in a major escalation of the conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, under domestic pressure to ramp up the war as his forces have lost ground since early September, ordered Monday’s missile strikes in response to an alleged Ukrainian attack on Russia’s bridge to annexed Crimea last weekend.
In recent weeks, Moscow moved to annex new tracts of Ukraine after referendums widely denounced as illegal, mobilized hundreds of thousands of Russians to fight, and repeatedly threatened to use nuclear arms, stoking alarm in the West.
Mr. Putin is a “rational actor who has miscalculated significantly,” Mr.Biden said in a CNN interview.
Asked how realistic he believed it would be for Mr. Putin to use a tactical nuclear weapon, Mr. Biden responded: “Well, I don’t think he will.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday the military alliance has not noticed any change in Russia’s nuclear posture following the threats.
Ukraine’s military said its forces drove Russian troops out of several settlements near the Russian-occupied town of Beryslav in the Kherson region.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blasts in Kherson or Melitopol which were reported by Russian media.
Also in the south, Russian missiles destroyed buildings in the Zaporizhzhia region overnight but there were no reports of casualties, regional Governor Oleksandr Starukh said on the Telegram messaging app.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield reports.
Air raid sirens sounded over Kyiv for a third consecutive day, even as residents cleaned up after Monday’s strikes.
“It is not that they are fighting the military, they are just driven by the desire to destroy, destroy, to destroy us,” said Yulia Datsenko, a 38-year-old paramedic, as she surveyed the damage to her apartment.
Monday’s attacks killed 19 people, wounded more than 100 and knocked out power across the country in Moscow’s biggest aerial offensive since the start of its invasion on Feb. 24.
More missile strikes on Tuesday killed seven people in the southeastern town of Zaporizhzhia, a presidential aide said, and left part of the western city of Lviv without power.
About 30% of the entire Ukrainian energy system had been damaged by Russian missile strikes over the past two days, Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko told CNN.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he expects a positive response on Wednesday from Western allies in Brussels to his requests for a rapid increase in military aid as the country’s cities faced more Russian missile strikes.
Mr. Zelensky appealed to the leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) nations on Tuesday for more air defense capabilities. The G7 vowed to support Kyiv for “as long as it takes.”
A US-led coalition of some 50 countries known as the Ukraine Defense Contact Group will meet in Brussels on Wednesday on the sidelines of a NATO defense ministers meeting.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov celebrated the arrival from the United States of what he said were four additional High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), whose accuracy and longer range have allowed Ukraine to reduce Russia’s artillery advantage.
“HIMARS time,” he wrote on Twitter, was a “good time for Ukrainians and bad time for the occupiers.”
Ukraine on Tuesday received the first of four IRIS-T air defense systems Germany promised to supply, a German defense ministry source said.
The United States said it was speeding up the shipment of NASAMS air defenses to Ukraine. Washington has already provided more than $16.8 billion worth of security aid to Ukraine during the war.
The G7 — which groups the United States, Germany, France, Japan, Britain, Italy and Canada — pledged continued “financial, humanitarian, military, diplomatic and legal support … for as long as it takes” to Ukraine, it said in a statement.
It also condemned “indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilian populations” as war crimes and said Mr. Putin would be held to account for them.
Moscow, which calls its actions in Ukraine a “special military operation” to eliminate dangerous nationalists and protect Russian speakers, has accused the West of escalating and prolonging the conflict by supporting Kyiv.
Kyiv and its Western backers accuse Russia of an unprovoked land grab in Ukraine. And Mr. Zelensky on Tuesday again ruled out peace talks with Mr. Putin.
In an interview on state television, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was open to talks with the United States or with Turkey on ways to end the war, now in its eighth month, but had yet to receive any serious proposal to negotiate.
Washington dismissed such offers as “posturing”. — Reuters