Zelensky’s Response to Growing Russian Threats: Challenge

KYIV, Ukraine — President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government are responding with defiance and a touch of bravado to a series of Russian threats as he prepares to take the provocative step of declaring parts of Ukraine Russian territory.

Amid ominous signals from Moscow about the escalation of the war, including hints about the use of nuclear weapons, Ukrainian forces are continuing their attack on Russian troops in the east and south in regions Russia intends to claim on Friday as own. And government officials are also seeking a propaganda advantage, posting instructions on social media, in Russian, on how Russian soldiers can safely surrender.

Zelensky has been at pains to point out that he is not dismissive of the Russian threat. He said he did not think Putin was bluffing about threats of military escalation or the use of nuclear weapons.

But he also made a public reminder of Ukraine’s recent successes, presenting medals Wednesday to 320 soldiers and other security service members for this month’s counterattack in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine.

Russia launched the annexation plans after the offensive broke through Russian army lines and forced it to withdraw from thousands of square kilometers of land.

Annexation would allow Russia to claim Ukraine is attacking its territory, not the other way around, and Russian officials have spoken of defending their claims by any means, a hint at the potential use of nuclear weapons. Russia also announced a draft to call up hundreds of thousands of new soldiers.

The ploy is already underway: Russian power leaders from four Ukrainian provinces have traveled to Moscow to formally appeal to President Vladimir V. Putin to join Russia after bogus referendums apparently endorsed the idea. A stage has been erected on Red Square.

In Kyiv, officials are responding with the touch of arrogance that has characterized their public statements during the war, despite more cautious responses from Western allies.

“If you want to live, run,” Zelensky said in his late-night speech on Wednesday, speaking in Russian and addressing Russian soldiers. “If you want to live, give up. If you want to live, fight in your streets for your freedom.”

Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told a conference of security experts that many Western nations expected Ukraine’s government to collapse in the initial Russian invasion, but they were proven wrong. “Ukrainians will never give up,” he said.

After the counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, the battlefield initiative shifted to Ukraine, military analysts said. Ukrainian troops have been pressing from various directions toward a Russian-held town in eastern Ukraine, Lyman, and appeared close to completing an encirclement.

If Russian troops are captured or forced to flee along a road remaining under their control, it would be an embarrassing setback for the Russians in an area they are moving to declare part of their country.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov said Russia intended to capture at least all of Donetsk, the region containing Lyman. Ukraine now controls about half of the province.

Lyman’s fall would also undermine Russian defensive lines in eastern Ukraine, wrote the Institute for the Study of War, an American analytical group.

Russian rocket and missile attacks hit two Ukrainian cities, Dnipro and Kryvyi Rih, overnight from Wednesday to Thursday, damaging houses, killing two civilians and wounding at least 15 others. The Ukrainian government does not publish information on military casualties. of Russian missile attacks.

Ordinary Ukrainians, ready to believe the worst of Russia after the shelling of civilian areas and the discovery of mass graves on territory claimed by the Ukrainian military, have been on edge. Many are posting on social media about the fear of nuclear war.

“The next one will be a nuclear attack, very soon,” wrote Stanislav Kotliar, a musician, on Facebook. “This is the main reason why I sent my loved ones to Germany, even though they wanted to stay in Poland, to keep them away from the nuclear cloud.”

Still, even Ukrainian analysts and former security officials see Russia’s nuclear threat as a show of weakness, not strength. Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said in an interview that Ukraine would not cease its offensives if Russia declared the four provinces Russian territory.

If Russia’s lines continue to collapse after mobilization reinforcements arrive, he said, that would increase the risk of a tactical nuclear attack. But he added: “For Putin it is an illusion that Ukraine and the West will take a step back. It is important to continue biting off territory occupied by Russia. This is what Putin is trying to prevent, so we should do this.”

Maria Varenikova contributed report.