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Boris Johnson has said he does not expect any further Russian military failures in Ukraine to push President Vladimir Putin into using tactical nuclear weapons, saying he had room to manoeuvre and end the conflict.
Asked if he expected Mr Putin to consider using tactical nuclear weapons if he suffered more military failures in Ukraine, he said: “No, I don’t.”
“Given the massive Russian backing for what he is doing, given the apparent obliviousness of the Russian media about what is really happening in Ukraine, the paradox is that Putin has far more political space to back down, to withdraw,” he told Tom Newton Dunn on TalkTV.
Mr Johnson was also asked on Tuesday evening about a spat between Moscow and London, after Russia warned Britain on Tuesday of an immediate “proportional response” if Britain continued to provoke Ukraine into striking targets in Russia.
Russia’s defence ministry cited statements from Britain’s armed forces minister James Heappey who told BBC radio that it was entirely legitimate for Ukraine to hunt targets in the depths of Russia to disrupt logistics and supply lines.
Asked about the row, Mr Johnson said Ukrainians had a right to protect themselves, but added that Britain did not want the crisis to escalate beyond Ukraine’s borders.
He also said his government would do whatever it could to help two British fighters captured in Ukraine, but that any prisoner swap would be a decision for Kyiv.
He said that Facebook has agreed to take down a video of one of the two captured soldiers, Aiden Aslin, being taunted with the death penalty.
Mr Aslin was captured while fighting with Ukrainian armed forces against Russia.
Mr Johnson said the removal comes after Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries called Sir Nick Clegg, vice president of global affairs at Facebook’s parent company Meta and the UK’s former deputy prime minister.
Mr Johnson said: “Nadine Dorries rang Facebook earlier today, she rang Nick Clegg, and as I understand the matter Nick has agreed to take that down.”
Mr Aslin, who is originally from Newark-on-Trent in Nottinghamshire, was fighting in Mariupol, Ukraine, when he was captured earlier this month.
Fellow Briton Shaun Pinner was also captured during the siege.
Russia pounded eastern and southern Ukraine on Tuesday as the US promised to “keep moving heaven and earth” to get Kyiv the weapons it needs to repel the new offensive, despite Moscow’s warnings that such support could trigger a wider war.
For the second day in a row, mysterious explosions rocked the separatist region of Trans-Dniester in neighbouring Moldova, knocking out two powerful radio antennas close to the Ukrainian border and further heightening fears of a broader conflict erupting across Europe. No-one claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Russian missile fire also knocked out a strategic rail bridge along a route that links the southern Odesa port region to neighbouring Romania, a Nato member, Ukrainian authorities said.
US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said that more help was on the way, as he convened a meeting of officials from around 40 countries at the United States’ Ramstein Air Base in Germany to pledge more weapons.
Germany announced it has cleared the way for delivery of Gepard anti-aircraft guns to Ukraine.
“This gathering reflects the galvanised world,” Mr Austin said in his opening remarks.
After unexpectedly fierce resistance by Ukrainian forces thwarted Russia’s attempt to take Ukraine’s capital early in the war, Moscow now says its focus is the Donbas, the mostly Russian-speaking industrial region in eastern Ukraine.
That move is already having a devastating effect on civilians trapped in the conflict.
In the small city of Toretsk, residents are struggling to survive, collecting rainwater for cleaning and washing up and fervently hoping for an end to the fighting.
“It’s bad. Very bad. Hopeless,” said Andriy Cheromushkin.
“You feel so helpless that you don’t know what you should do or shouldn’t do. Because if you want to do something, you need some money; and there is no money now.”
With the potentially pivotal battle for the Donbas under way, the US and its Nato allies are scrambling to get artillery and other heavy weaponry to that area in time to make a difference.
German defence minister Christine Lambrecht said her government decided on Monday to clear the delivery of Gepard self-propelled armoured anti-aircraft guns to Ukraine, though she did not give details.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has faced mounting pressure, including from within his governing coalition, to approve sending heavy weapons such as tanks and other armoured vehicles to Ukraine.
Mr Austin also noted on Tuesday that more than 30 allies and partners have joined the US in sending security assistance to Ukraine and more than five billion dollars worth of equipment has been committed.
A senior Kremlin official, Nikolai Patrushev, warned that “the policies of the West and the Kyiv regime controlled by it would only be the break-up of Ukraine into several states”.
The meeting in Germany comes after Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking on Russian television, warned weapons supplied by western countries “will be a legitimate target”, and accused Nato of “pouring oil on the fire” with its support for Ukraine, according to a transcript on the Russian Foreign Ministry’s website.
Mr Lavrov also warned against provoking a third world war and said the threat of a nuclear conflict “should not be underestimated”.
Mr Putin has cited Nato’s expansion and the risk that Kyiv could join the alliance as reasons for his invasion.
Mr Heappey rejected Mr Lavrov’s accusations of Nato aggression as “utter nonsense”.
He said “the reason there is a war in Ukraine right now is because Russia rolled over the borders of a sovereign country and started to invade their territory”.
Mr Heappey also said Russia was making “unsound” military decisions and giving away tactical advantages because of Mr Putin’s desire to secure some kind of victory by May 9, when Russia marks its victory in the Second World War.
And he said it would be acceptable for Ukrainian forces to use Western weapons to attack military targets on Russian soil.
Mr Heappey added he thought the chances of a nuclear war were “vanishingly small”, with no-one wanting such an outcome.
The UK has announced it will give Ukraine a small number of anti-aircraft vehicles.
Amid the talk of arms shipments, diplomatic efforts to seek an end to the fighting also continued.
United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres met Mr Lavrov on Tuesday and called again for a ceasefire.
Mr Guterres later met Mr Putin, who claimed that Moscow still hoped to negotiate a peaceful settlement with Ukraine.
Following the talks, the United Nations said Mr Putin had agreed “in principle” to UN and International Committee for the Red Cross involvement in the evacuation of civilians from the Azovstal plant in Mariupol.
Russia’s invasion has worried several countries in eastern Europe that fear they could be next.
Those concerns grew in Moldova after a Russian commander said that securing southern Ukraine would open the way to the Moldovan separatist region of Trans-Dniester.
On Tuesday, police said explosions knocked down two powerful radio antennas at a facility close to the Ukrainian border, the second explosions reported in the region in as many days.
Washington has warned previously that Russian forces could launch “false-flag” operations to create a pretext for invading the territory of other nations.
Russian officials have rejected such claims.
In its latest assessment of the fighting, the UK Ministry of Defence reported Russian advances and heavy fighting in the Donbas region, with one town, Kreminna, reportedly falling after days of street-to-street fighting.
In Mariupol, the besieged city seen as crucial to the fight for the east, authorities said on Tuesday that Russian forces hit the Azovstal steel plant with 35 air strikes over the past 24 hours.
The plant is the last known redoubt of Ukrainian fighters in the city, and some of the civilians sheltering there were wounded in the strikes, officials said.
“Russia has drastically intensified strikes over the past 24 hours and is using heavy bunker bombs,” Petro Andryushchenko, adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, told the Associated Press by phone.
“The number of those wounded will be clear once the rubble is cleared.”
Beyond Mariupol, local officials said at least nine people have been killed and several more wounded by Russian attacks on towns and cities in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk region, said on the Telegram messaging app that Russian forces “continue to deliberately fire at civilians and to destroy critical infrastructure”.
Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian forces shelled Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city that lies outside the Donbas but has seen significant attacks as Moscow seeks full control of the region.
Ukrainian forces struck back in the Kherson region in the south.
A senior Russian military official has said that Russia’s goal is full control of Ukraine’s east and south, which would give it a swathe of land that lies between Russia and Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014.
Britain said it believes 15,000 Russian troops have been killed in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began - far above the 1,351 deaths acknowledged by Moscow.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said 25 per cent of the Russian combat units sent to Ukraine “have been rendered not combat effective”.
Ukrainian officials have said about 2,500 to 3,000 Ukrainian troops had been killed as of mid-April.