Putin put the nuclear forces on high alert and escalated tensions
Kyiv, Ukraine >> President Vladimir Putin dramatically escalated east-west tensions by putting Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert on Sunday, while Ukraine’s embattled leader agreed to talks with Moscow as Putin’s troops and tanks pushed deeper into the country and approached the capital.
Citing “aggressive statements” from NATO and tough financial sanctions, Putin issued a directive to increase Russia’s nuclear weapons readiness, stoking fears that invading Ukraine could lead to nuclear war, be it intentional or accidental.
The Russian leader “is potentially bringing forces into play that, if miscalculated, could make things much, much more dangerous,” said a senior US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss rapidly evolving military operations.
Putin’s order came as Russian forces met stiff resistance from Ukrainian defenders. Despite nationwide progress, Moscow has so far failed to gain full control of Ukraine’s airspace. US officials say they believe the invasion was more difficult and slower than the Kremlin imagined, though that could change as Moscow adjusts.
The conflict could change significantly if Russia receives military aid from neighboring Belarus, which is expected to send troops to Ukraine as early as Monday, according to a senior American intelligence official with direct knowledge of the latest US intelligence assessments. The official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said whether Belarus enters the war depends on the talks between Ukraine and Russia, which will take place in the coming days.
Amid mounting pressure, Western nations said they would tighten sanctions and buy and supply arms to Ukraine, including Stinger missiles to shoot down helicopters and other aircraft. European countries will also supply fighter jets to Ukraine, said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
Meanwhile, the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced plans to meet a Russian delegation at an unspecified location on the Belarusian border.
It was not immediately clear when the meeting would take place, nor what the Kremlin ultimately intended, either in these possible talks at the border or, more generally, in its war in Ukraine. Western officials believe Putin wants to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with his own regime in order to revive Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.
The rapid developments came as isolated fighting was reported in Kyiv. Fighting also broke out in Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, and strategic ports in the south of the country were attacked by Russian forces.
Russian forces had taken Berdyansk, a Ukrainian city of 100,000 people on the Azov Sea coast, late Sunday, according to Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to Zelenskyy’s office. Russian troops were also advancing towards Kherson, another city in southern Ukraine, while Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov thought to be a top Russian target, “is holding on,” Arestovich said.
As Russian troops closed in around Kyiv, a city of nearly 3 million people, the capital’s mayor expressed doubts that civilians could be evacuated. Authorities distributed guns to anyone willing to defend the city. Ukraine also releases prisoners with military experience who want to fight and trains people to make incendiary bombs.
The United Nations nuclear watchdog said missiles hit a radioactive waste dump in Kyiv, but there were no reports of damage to the buildings or evidence of a release of radioactive material. The watchdog said he was briefed on the incident by Ukrainian authorities, but did not specify which side fired the rockets.
In Mariupol, where Ukrainians were trying to repel an attack, a medical team from a city hospital was desperately trying to revive a 6-year-old girl in unicorn pajamas who had been mortally wounded in Russian shelling.
During the rescue attempt, a doctor in a blue scrubs who was pumping oxygen into the girl looked directly into the Associated Press’s video camera, which was recording the scene.
“Show that to Putin,” he said angrily. “This child’s eyes and crying doctors.”
Her attempts at resuscitation failed and the girl lay dead on a stretcher, her jacket spattered with blood.
Nearly 560 miles away, Faina Bystritska was threatened in the city of Chernihiv.
“I wish I had never experienced that,” said Bystritska, an 87-year-old Jewish survivor of World War II. She said sirens wail almost constantly in the city, about 90 miles from Kyiv.
Chernihiv residents have been told not to turn on lights “so we don’t draw their attention,” said Bystritska, who lives in a hallway and away from windows to better protect herself.
“The window glass keeps shaking and there’s this constant thundering sound,” she said.
Meanwhile, the EU’s top official outlined plans for the 27-nation bloc to close its airspace to Russian airlines and buy arms for Ukraine. The EU will also ban some pro-Kremlin media, said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
The US also increased the flow of arms to Ukraine, announcing it will send Stinger missiles as part of a package approved by the White House on Friday. Germany also plans to send 500 Stingers and other military supplies.
The 193-member UN General Assembly also called an emergency session on the Russian invasion on Monday.
In ordering the nuclear alert, Putin not only referred to statements by NATO members, but also to the West’s harsh financial sanctions against Russia, including Putin himself.
“Western countries are not only taking unfriendly measures against our country in the economic sphere, but senior officials of leading NATO members have made aggressive statements towards our country,” Putin said in TV commentaries.
US defense officials would not disclose their current nuclear alert level except to say the military stands ready at all times to defend its homeland and allies.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told ABC that Putin was going back to the pattern he had used in the weeks leading up to the invasion “of fabricating threats that don’t exist to justify further aggression.” .
The practical significance of Putin’s order was not immediately clear. Russia and the United States usually have land- and subsea-based nuclear forces that are operational and combat-ready at all times, but not nuclear-capable bombers and other aircraft.
In Kyiv, terrified residents crouched in houses, underground parking lots and subway stations in anticipation of a full-scale Russian attack. Food and medicine were running out, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said.
“Right now the most important question is to defend our country,” said Klitschko.
In downtown Kharkiv, 86-year-old Olena Dudnik said she and her husband were almost thrown out of bed by the blast from a nearby explosion.
“We are suffering immensely,” she said over the phone. “We don’t have a lot of food in the pantry, and I’m concerned that the stores won’t have anything either when they reopen.” She added, “I just want the shooting to stop, stop killing people.”
Russia’s failure to date to gain full control of Ukraine’s airspace is a surprising blunder that has given underarmed Ukrainian forces a chance to slow the advance of Russian ground forces. Usually, gaining what the military calls air superiority is one of the first priorities for an invading force.
But although Russian troops are being held back by Ukrainian resistance, fuel shortages and other logistical problems, a senior US defense official said that was likely to change. “We are on the fourth day. Russians will learn and adapt,” the official said.
The death toll from Europe’s biggest land conflict since World War II remained unclear amid the confusion.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said Sunday that 352 Ukrainian civilians were killed, including 14 children. It said another 1,684 people, including 116 children, were injured.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov did not provide figures on Russia’s dead and wounded, but said his country’s losses were “several times” fewer than Ukraine’s on Sunday.
In addition to military aid, the US, European Union and UK also agreed to block select Russian banks from the SWIFT system, which moves money between thousands of banks and other financial institutions worldwide.
Russia’s economy has faltered since the invasion, with the ruble plummeting and the central bank calling for calm to avoid bank runs.
Russia, which has nearly 200,000 troops stationed on Ukraine’s borders, claims its attack is only aimed at military targets, but bridges, schools and residential areas have also been hit.