Vladimir Putin is “highly unlikely” to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine conflict but he is not acting in a “rational” way, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said.
The Russian president has threatened to use “all the means at our disposal” if his country is threatened, seen as a sign that he could use tactical nuclear weapons in response to attacks on parts of Ukraine he has annexed.
But Mr Wallace played down the prospect, telling a fringe meeting at the Tory party conference that although the use of nuclear weapons was in the Russian military doctrine, it would be unacceptable to Moscow’s allies India and China.
He said Mr Putin “was given a very clear sense what is acceptable and unacceptable” in meetings with the Indian and Chinese leaderships.
But Mr Wallace added that the Russian leader’s actions, from the nerve agent attack in Salisbury to the invasion of Ukraine, were “totally irrational”.
Security minister Tom Tugendhat warned that a call from Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov for Moscow to use low-yield nuclear weapons in Ukraine would be “a very high-consequence decision”.
“It is perfectly clear that for almost every country in the world nuclear weapons have been an extraordinary taboo for decades now, and reversing that would be a tragedy for all of us,” he told a separate conference fringe event.
Asked if he could foresee Mr Putin being brought back into the international fold in the longer term, Mr Tugendhat said: “I’d be astonished.
“Never say never, but President Putin has set out an agenda and a path that doesn’t suggest any negotiation.”
He said the Russian leader would have to recognise the territorial integrity of Ukraine and “stop his campaign of assassinations around Europe”.
In a sign of the latest concerns about Russia’s actions, Mr Wallace will join a crisis meeting of northern European nations on Monday to discuss the security of pipelines and undersea cables.
Prime Minister Liz Truss has said a series of explosions which caused major damage to Russia’s undersea Nord Stream gas pipelines were “clearly an act of sabotage”.
Mr Wallace said the UK and the Nordic nations were “deeply vulnerable” to acts of sabotage against cables and pipelines.
“I’ll be convening, with the Dutch, a virtual joint expeditionary force meeting on Monday,” he said.
“So I have to break my timetable tomorrow to meet 10 of the Nordic states about what we’re going to do about it because the Nordic states and ourselves are deeply vulnerable to people doing things on our cables and our pipelines.
“So suddenly, that becomes a big issue we have to get to the bottom of, we have to think about what assets we can move to give people reassurance or, indeed, investigate what’s going on.”
Mr Wallace said the prolonged war in Ukraine had shown the need to make sure stockpiles of equipment and supply chains were protected, as he admitted some supplies were running “fairly low”.
Defence spending had been “hollowed out” over 30 to 40 years so “unsexy parts” of the budget had been neglected, he said.
Mr Wallace acknowledged that “some of our weapons stockpiles are fairly low and the supply chains switched off 10 years ago, so we have to reinvigorate that”.
He said the Russians were suffering badly, in part because some of their suppliers were in Ukraine and had been bombed – a sign of the “strategic genius that President Putin is clearly proving to be”.
At a separate fringe event, James Cleverly said Ukraine will succeed in pushing out Russian invaders because Moscow’s “tanks are fearful of Ukrainian tractors”.
The Foreign Secretary said: “We have seen Ukrainians – both their professional army but also those people volunteering, those people, the students and the musicians and the politicians and the artists and the sports stars – taking up arms and defending their country against this illegal, unprovoked act of aggression by Vladimir Putin.
“Anyone here who was a member of the armed forces, you’re always told the only thing that a tank fears is another tank.
“Well, Russian tanks are fearful of Ukrainian tractors.
“That’s why Ukrainians will succeed, and when they do and when that fantastic, glorious day comes, then our role evolves, because we have to help them rebuild their country and rebuild their society and rebuild their economy.”
Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK said he is “fascinated” by UK bureaucracy as he criticised the visa process.
At a fringe event at the conference held by the Conservative Friends of Ukraine group, Vadym Prystaiko thanked Britons for opening up their homes to Ukrainians fleeing the war.
With the six-month contract under the Government’s sponsorship scheme about to expire, Mr Prystaiko asked for “more hospitality, more generosity, more patience” from those putting up refugees.
He said: “We’ll never forget this, this act, this kindness.
“And please, somebody do something with the visas, finally. Where is (Foreign) Secretary (James) Cleverly? This is just a disgrace, you know, I have to tell you.
“I’m fascinated… by your bureaucracy.”
He has previously urged MPs to drop visa requirements for fleeing Ukrainians and said his wife faced delays in obtaining one.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson was named as the incoming president of the Conservative Friends of Ukraine group.