Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday that Russia will view US-made F-16 fighter jets in Ukraine as a nuclear threat because they are capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
“We have informed the nuclear powers, the United States, Britain and France, that Russia cannot ignore the ability of these aircraft to carry nuclear weapons. No amount of assurances will help here,” Lavrov said.
President Biden has given the green light for European countries to deliver F-16s for Ukraine, and 11 of Ukraine’s Western backers announced Tuesday that they would start training Ukrainian pilots on the US-made aircraft in August.
F-16s are capable of carrying US B61 nuclear gravity bombs, which the US stores in several European countries under NATO’s nuclear sharing program. There’s no indication the US is planning to arm Ukraine with nukes, but Lavrov said Russia will still take the threat seriously.
“In the course of combat operations, our servicemen are not going to sort out whether each particular aircraft of this type is equipped to deliver nuclear weapons or not,” he said. “We will regard the very fact that the Ukrainian armed forces have such systems as a threat from the West in the nuclear sphere.”
Lavrov added that the US and its allies are “creating risks of a direct armed clash with Russia, and this is fraught with catastrophic consequences.” In the early days of the war, NATO ruled out arming Ukraine with fighter jets because they feared Russia would perceive the move as the alliance directly entering the war, but the concerns of escalation have waned.
Lavrov has previously noted that F-16s could carry nuclear weapons, a warning that was brushed off by the Biden administration. “The first thing I would say to Minister Lavrov is: If you’re worried about Ukrainian military capabilities, then you should take your troops and leave Ukraine,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said last month.