Russia has the right to deploy nuclear arms in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine last year, a Foreign Ministry official said Wednesday, adding that he knew of no plans to do so.
"I don't know if there are nuclear weapons there now. I don't know about any plans, but in principle, Russia can do it," Mikhail Ulyanov, the head of the ministry's department on arms control, was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
His comment is the latest instance of a Russian official using rhetoric about nuclear weapons to assert Moscow’s control of Crimea, a territorial claim that is not internationally recognized. As recently as December, the country’s foreign minister also maintained Russia's right to move nuclear weapons to Crimea.
“Crimea was not a non-nuclear zone in an international law sense but was part of Ukraine, a state which doesn't possess nuclear arms,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with Interfax news agency in December. “Now Crimea has become part of a state which possesses such weapons in accordance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty."
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday that Russia was still arming and training rebel forces in eastern Ukraine. He called for the warring parties to help foreign monitors reinforce a cease-fire.
Asked at a news conference about a U.S. diplomat's remark that Russian tanks had crossed into Ukraine in recent days, he declined specific comment on that but said, "We ... still see Russian presence and strong support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine. We see the delivery of equipment, forces, training. And so Russia is still in eastern Ukraine.
"Therefore we call on Russia to withdraw all its forces from eastern Ukraine and to respect the Minsk agreement."
On Tuesday, Victoria Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European affairs, told a congressional hearing that Russian tanks and artillery had crossed into eastern Ukraine in recent days in breach of a cease-fire deal agreed upon in Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 12.
Stoltenberg and the top NATO commander, U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove, told reporters at the alliance's military headquarters in Belgium that their priority now in Ukraine is to see monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) given safe and free access and comprehensive information they need to reinforce the truce.
Al Jazeera and Reuters