Zelensky calls Putin nuclear threat a 'bluff'

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called Russian President Vladimir Putin's threat to use nuclear force should the West get involved in the war a "bluff."

The Ukrainian leader has ramped up his calls for the West to impose a no-fly zone over the country as Russian aerial attacks have intensified and amid warnings that Moscow may be prepared to use weapons of mass destruction on its neighbor.

Late last month, Putin ordered that nuclear forces be put on higher alert, earlier warning that "no one should have any doubts that a direct attack on our country will lead to the destruction and horrible consequences for any potential aggressor."

A senior United States Defense official said following Putin's order that it was "escalatory" and "unnecessary," adding that there was "no reason" to doubt Putin's threat.

But in an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit, Zelensky indicated that he did not take Putin's threat seriously.

"I think that the threat of nuclear war is a bluff. It's one thing to be a murderer. It's another to commit suicide. Every use of nuclear weapons means the end for all sides, not just for the person using them," Zelensky said.

"Rather, Putin's threat shows a weakness. You only threaten the use of nuclear weapons when nothing else is working. I am sure that Russia is aware of the catastrophic consequences of any attempt to use nuclear weapons," he added.

The Biden administration is coming under increasing pressure to consider a no-fly zone as Russia bombards civilian targets across Ukraine, including hospitals and schools. However, the president has insisted that the U.S. will avoid direct conflict with Russia out of fear of starting a world war with a nuclear power.

Zelensky also lamented it was a "mistake" that the signatories of a memorandum struck in the 1990s - that guaranteed Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons - had violated their agreement. The signatories include Ukraine, Russia, Britain and the United States.

"Who in the world would still trust the power of treaties? And that's why severely punishing Russia would mean restoring the power of international law," he told Die Zeit. "The West is capable of that."

Zelensky's remarks come as the White House raises alarm that Russia could use biological or chemical weapons in Ukraine.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki hit back against Russia's claims that a military biological program run by the Pentagon had been discovered in Ukraine.

"This is preposterous. It's the kind of disinformation operation we've seen repeatedly from the Russians over the years in Ukraine and in other countries, which have been debunked, and an example of the types of false pretexts we have been warning the Russians would invent," Psaki said in a statement.

"Also, Russia has a track record of accusing the West of the very violations that Russia itself is perpetrating. In December, Russia falsely accused the U.S. of deploying contractors with chemical weapons in Ukraine," she continued.

The United Kingdom's Ministry of Defense said on Wednesday that Russia's Ministry of Defense claimed it used a Soviet-era thermobaric rocket launching weapon, though Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said that the U.S. military had "no indications" it had been used.

Russian forces have also seized several nuclear plants in Ukraine.

After Russian forces attacked the largest power plant in Europe - Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant - earlier this month, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that if it blew up, the results would be disastrous.