Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday accused Western security services of having helped Kyiv stage “terror attacks” in Russia, after giving an icy welcome to the new US and EU ambassadors, amid heavy fighting in Bakhmut.
His Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, made a rare foreign visit to Warsaw.
In Moscow, Putin told a meeting of the Kremlin’s Security Council: “There are reasons to believe that the capabilities of third countries, Western special services, have been involved in preparation of acts of sabotage and terror attacks.”
The Russian leader added “neo-Nazis and their accomplices were acting” in Russia as well as the incorporated territories, including the regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.
Hours earlier, Putin had received the new Western ambassadors to Moscow at a ceremony in the Kremlin.
He told the United States’ Ambassador Lynne Tracy that Washington was responsible for the Ukraine crisis, adding that ties between Russia and the US were in a “deep crisis”.
Putin also told the new envoy of the European Union to Moscow, Roland Galharague, that the bloc instigated a “geopolitical confrontation” with Moscow.
Also on Wednesday, Putin hosted President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus for talks on expanding ties between their countries.
The Kremlin on Wednesday defended its decision to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, rejecting criticism of the move by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the US-led military group was the one expanding toward Russia, not the other way around, and therefore Moscow had to take steps to defend its own security.
Meanwhile, in Warsaw, Zelensky expressed Ukraine’s gratitude to Poland for providing Kyiv with weapons during the conflict.
Poland, Ukraine’s western neighbor, became the first NATO member to pledge the MiG-29 fighter jets that Ukraine had been calling for.
In another development, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu will discuss the conflict in Ukraine, energy cooperation and the Black Sea grain deal during a two-day visit by a Russian delegation.
The ministry said on Wednesday that Lavrov and Cavusoglu would use the visit on Thursday and Friday to touch base on the “situation in Ukraine” as well as consult on a wide range of issues.
On the frontlines, Zelensky said Ukrainian troops faced a difficult situation in the battle for Bakhmut and the military would take “corresponding” decisions to protect them if they risked being encircled by Russian forces.
He refuted claims by Russian forces that they had captured the city, in ruins after months of attritional warfare and bombardment.
Ukraine’s military said in an early Thursday update that Russian forces were storming Bakhmut with the intention of taking full control of it, adding that Bakhmut, along with the towns of Avdiivka and Maryinka to the southwest, was “the epicenter” of the fighting.
The battle for Bakhmut, in eastern Donetsk, has proved one of the bloodiest of Russia’s special military operation, now in its 14th month.