Officials in Moscow have started to prepare citizens for the possible use of nuclear weapons in seized areas of Ukraine, according to president Volodymyr Zelensky.
“They begin to prepare their society. That’s very dangerous,” he said.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has threatened to use “all the means at our disposal” to defend what he sees as his country’s territory, including the four areas of Ukraine annexed last week.
The Ukrainian leader said: “They are not ready to do it, to use it. But they begin to communicate. They don’t know whether they’ll use or not use it. I think it’s dangerous to even speak about it.”
In an interview with the BBC, president Zelensky denied having urged strikes on Russia, claiming that an earlier remark of his had been mistranslated.
“You must use preventive kicks,” he said, as he called for pre-emptive sanctions, “not attacks”.
Talking of defending Russia, Mr Putin also cited America’s nuclear weapon use against Japan at the end of the Second World War.
Mr Putin and Russian officials have suggested that nuclear weapons – possibly smaller, tactical weapons – could be used, although Western officials say there is no evidence Moscow is prepared to do so.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov branded Mr Zelensky’s comment on pre-emptive action as “an appeal to start yet another world war”.
“After that translation,” Mr Zelensky said, “they [the Russians] did their way, how it’s useful for them, and began to retranslate it in other directions.”
He added: “We are not terrorists. We do not fight on another territory.
“Even our attitude from our society to Russians after this invasion, after all this eight years’ war, eight years of blood tragedy – even after this, our attitude to them, to society, we are not ready to kill people like Russians do. ”
Mr Zelensky said action was needed now as Russia’s threats were “a risk for the whole planet”.
He urged the world to implement sanctions to make Mr Putin’s troops leave the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant.
And he also urged Russians to “fight for your body, rights and soul”, saying: “These mobilized kids now, they come without machine guns, armored jackets, they are just cannon fodder…. If they don’t want to be kebab… they need to fight [for their lives].
“All Putin is afraid of is not a nuclear strike. He’s afraid of his society, of his people.
“Because only these people can replace him, strip him of his power and give it to another person.”
A week ago, the Kremlin staged lavish a celebration marking the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, claiming they were returning to “the motherland”.