FILE PHOTO: Ukraine's Defence Minister Andriy Taran (R) and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Ruslan Homchak wearing protective face masks attend a memorial service for Taras Matviyiv, a Ukrainian serviceman, killed on July 10 in the fighting against pro-Russian separatists in the country's east, at the Independence Square in central Kyiv, Ukraine July 14, 2020. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Ukraine’s defence minister said on Wednesday that Russia was preparing to potentially store nuclear weapons in Crimea and warned that Moscow could attack Ukraine to ensure water supplies for the annexed peninsula.

Andrii Taran, speaking just before an emergency NATO meeting with allied defence and foreign ministers, also said he could not rule out a possibility that Russian forces in Crimea could “undertake substantive military provocations” this year.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, in a move that triggered Western sanctions against Moscow.

“Crimea’s infrastructure is being prepared for potentially storing nuclear weapons,” Taran told the European Parliament’s sub-committee on defence. “The very presence of nuclear munitions in the peninsula may spark a whole array of complex political, legal and moral problems.”

Taran provided no evidence for his assertion.

Any Russian decision to move nuclear weapons to Crimea, which juts into the northern Black Sea, would mark a significant worsening in East-West tensions.

It would also strain a newly-extended arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, which imposes restrictions on the land- and submarine-based missiles used to carry nuclear warheads.

Fighting has increased in recent weeks in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists in a seven-year conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people. NATO says the number of Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders is the highest since 2014.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at NATO headquarters on Wednesday to discuss the Ukraine crisis ahead of the meeting of all 30 allies by video conference.

“We have a number of very important issues to talk about, not the least of which is Russia,” Austin told reporters. “And I certainly share your concern with the recent build-up on the Ukraine border of Russian forces.”

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