Putin Using Nuclear War Threat to 'Blackmail the World,' Zelensky Says

One day after Russia's foreign minister said using nuclear weapons against Ukraine was a viable option, the Ukrainian president said Russia and President Vladimir Putin were trying to "blackmail the world."

In his address to Ukraine and the world on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia has created insecurity within the realm of nuclear activity.

"No other country in the world since 1986 has posed such a large-scale threat to nuclear security that Russia has created with its aggression against Ukraine," Zelensky said. "We hope for the full support of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the entire international community.

"No one has the right to turn nuclear energy into weapons, or to blackmail the world with nuclear weapons."

Zelensky's message came on the 36th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
A Ukrainian serviceman stands guard next to the monument in hommage to the firefighters who died during Chernobyl disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on April 26, 2022. - Russia's temporary takeover of the Chernobyl site was "very, very dangerous" and raised radiation levels but they have now returned to normal, the head of the UN atomic watchdog said on April 26, 2022. Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

This was apparently a response to a two-pronged threat from Russia. The first is the country's top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said a nuclear conflict is "serious." The other was Russia's occupation of the Chernobyl nuclear plant shortly after the invasion of Ukraine in February.

Lavrov on Monday said nuclear risks are real, and that he wouldn't haphazardly bring up this issue.

"This is our key position on which we base everything. The risks now are considerable," Lavrov said. "I would not want to elevate those risks artificially. Many would like that."

"The danger is serious, real," Lavrov added. "And we must not underestimate it."

Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 after weeks of mounting troops, supplies and medical facilities along the border. Russia also sent ships from the Baltics into the Black Sea during the build up.

One week after the invasion, Lavrov said tensions could build into World War III—potentially with nuclear fallout—if the Ukrainian conflict escalated.

Although Lavrov has said conventional weapons would be used within Ukraine, nuclear weapons could be used if the conflict reaches beyond Ukraine's borders.

Retired Lt. Col. Bill Astore, who's a former professor of history at the U.S. Air Force Academy, said a scenario of using nuclear weapons would be "horrifying." That's a possibility even if something like a "no-fly zone" was implemented by Western allies of Ukraine.

"If NATO enforced a no-fly zone and started shooting down Russian planes, I could see Putin responding with a tactical nuclear strike against a NATO airbase," Astore told Newsweek.

"That would risk a wider nuclear war, truly a horrifying scenario, which is why those who are calling for NATO escalation and direct involvement in the war are being irresponsible," Astore continued.

Putin recently said a new weapons test represented "a big, momentous event in the development of advanced weapons systems for the Russian Army," and that the missile had "no analogues in the world and will not have any for a long time to come."

"This truly unique weapon will force all who are trying to threaten our country in the heat of frenzied, aggressive rhetoric to think twice," Putin boasted on Russian television.

Newsweek reached out to the Ukrainian embassy in Washington, D.C., and to the Russian government for comment.