International condemnation has intensified over Moscow’s plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, even as fighting raged in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, with the ruined city of Bakhmut continuing to be the focal point of Russia’s struggling war effort.
The Ukrainian military said on March 26 that Russian offensives were centering on Bakhmut and a handful of other eastern areas, as Western analysts and others said Moscow’s monthslong assault in the area — led by the Wagner mercenary fighters — was stalling, beset by heavy troop losses.
Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that a drone sent by Ukrainian forces was intercepted near the Russian city of Tula and crashed into the town of Kireyevsk, injuring three people.
Ukraine did not comment on the claim, and the report could not be independently verified.
The fighting comes amid international fallout over plans announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 25 that he had reached agreement to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, a close ally that borders both Russia and Ukraine.
Kyiv condemned the plan and called for an urgent UN Security Council session and urged the international community to “take decisive measures” to prevent Moscow’s possible use of nuclear weapons.
“Russia once again confirms its chronic inability to be a responsible steward of nuclear weapons as a means of deterrence and prevention of war, not as a tool of threats and intimidation,” Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said.
The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said that fellow post-Soviet republic Belarus was falling “hostage” to Moscow by allowing the stationing of nuclear weapons on its soil.
NATO assailed Putin for “dangerous and irresponsible” nuclear rhetoric, while Germany condemned the move, saying it served to bring nuclear arms closer to the European Union.
“NATO is vigilant, and we are closely monitoring the situation. We have not seen any changes in Russia’s nuclear posture that would lead us to adjust our own,” a NATO spokesperson said.
An official in Berlin told AFP that it was “another attempt at nuclear intimidation by Russia.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted: “Belarus hosting Russian nuclear weapons would mean an irresponsible escalation & threat to European security. Belarus can still stop it, it is their choice. The EU stands ready to respond with further sanctions.”
Despite Putin’s comments, the White House said it did not see any indications that Russia was preparing to use nuclear weapons. It said, though, that “Russia’s reference to NATO’s nuclear sharing is totally misleading. NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments,” including the decades-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Putin likened his move to station nuclear weapons in Belarus to Washington’s policy of placing such weapons with NATO allies and claimed that it did not violate terms of the NPT.
Meanwhile, on the battlefield, Ukraine’s General Staff said its forces continued to hold positions in Bakhmut, where a Russian encirclement effort continues, but Ukraine’s top commander said this week the situation was being “stabilized.”
It cited Russian attacks in the Donetsk areas of Lyman, Maryinka, and Avdiyivka and said Ukrainian forces had repelled 85 Russian attacks over the past 24 hours.
In its daily update, the British Defense Ministry said Russia “most likely wanted to stabilize its front lines and would adopt a more defensive operational stance.”
Kyiv also said Russian forces were conducting “defensive actions” in the areas around Kherson and Zaporizhzhya, where shelling has raised fears over a captured nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said its director-general, Rafael Grossi, will make his second visit of the war next week to the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, where he and other nuclear experts have repeatedly warned of the risk of nuclear catastrophe.
The Kherson city council on March 24 advised residents living close to the Dnieper River to leave for “safer areas.”
The Ukrainian Army said the occupiers in the city of Berdyansk, in the Zaporizhzhya region, issued a decree forcing local residents to seek passes to move freely in the area pending background checks.
Russian forces and their separatist allies have conducted wide-scale “filtration” operations to vet civilians in occupied territory since early in the full-scale invasion that began in February 2022.
Ukraine’s General Staff also claimed that the Russian side had suffered 170,000 casualties so far in the all-out invasion that began in February 22.
RFE/RL cannot independently confirm casualty claims by either side or battlefield developments in areas of intense fighting.
In his regular video address late on March 25, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy praised a decision on “new packages of defense support” from Finland, Germany, Lithuania, and the United States, as well as a similar Swedish vote.
He also cited “a security package and strong agreements with Japan” following Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit earlier this week.
Zelenskiy said Croatia’s government backed a program to treat and rehabilitate Ukrainian war casualties and that Greece joined a group “working on the creation of a special tribunal” for war crimes.
Zelenskiy said the commitments allowed Ukraine to become stronger while “the enemy has become even more isolated, even more hopeless.”