Kyiv — In a dramatic escalation of East-West tensions over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear deterrent forces put on alert Sunday in response to what he called "aggressive statements" by leading NATO powers.
The move means Putin has ordered Russia's nuclear weapons prepared for increased readiness to launch, raising the threat that the tensions could boil over into a nuclear war. In giving it, the Russian leader also cited hard-hitting financial sanctions imposed by the West against Russia, including Putin himself.
Amid the worrying development, the office of Ukraine's president said a delegation would meet with Russian officials as Moscow's troops drew closer to Kyiv.
Putin, in giving the nuclear alert directive, cited not only the alleged statements by NATO members but the hard-hitting financial sanctions imposed by the West against Russia, including the Russian leader himself.
Speaking at a meeting with his top officials, Putin told his defense minister and the chief of the military's General Staff to put the nuclear deterrent forces in a "special regime of combat duty."
"Western countries aren't only taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic sphere, but top officials from leading NATO members made aggressive statements regarding our country," Putin said in televised comments.
Putin threatened in the days before Russia's invasion to retaliate harshly against any nations that intervened directly in the conflict in Ukraine, and he specifically raised the specter of his country's status as a nuclear power.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield denounced the move as a "totally unacceptable" escalation,on Sunday morning that the U.S. will "continue here at the United Nations and around the world to use every possible lever we have at our disposal to expose his actions."
"President Putin is continuing to escalate this war in a manner that is totally unacceptable, and we have to continue to condemn his actions in the strongest possible way," Thomas-Greenfield said.
The practical meaning of Putin's order was not immediately clear. Russia and the United States typically have the land- and submarine-based segments of their strategic nuclear forces on alert and prepared for combat at all times, but nuclear-capable bombers and other aircraft are not.
If Putin is arming or otherwise raising the nuclear combat readiness of his bombers, or if he is ordering more ballistic missile submarines to sea, then the United States might feel compelled to respond in kind, according to Hans Kristensen, a nuclear analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. That would mark a worrisome escalation and a potential crisis, he said.
The alarming step came as street fighting broke out in Ukraine's second-largest city and Russian troops squeezed strategic ports in the country's south, advances that appeared to mark a new phase offollowing a wave of attacks on airfields and fuel facilities elsewhere in the country.
The capital, Kyiv, was eerily quiet after huge explosions lit up the morning sky and authorities reported blasts at one of the airports. Only an occasional car appeared on a deserted main boulevard as a strict 39-hour curfew kept people off the streets. Terrified residents instead hunkered down in homes, underground garages and subway stations in anticipation of a full-scale Russian assault.
"The past night was tough – more shelling, more bombing of residential areas and civilian infrastructure," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said. "There is not a single facility in the country that the occupiers wouldn't consider as admissible targets."
Following its gains to the east in the city of Kharkiv and multiple ports, Russia sent a delegation to Belarus for peace talks with Ukraine, according to the Kremlin. Zelensky suggested other locations, saying his country was unwilling to meet in Belarus because it served as a staging ground for the invasion.
Until Sunday, Russia's troops had remained on the outskirts of Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million about 20 kilometers 12.4 miles south of the border with Russia, while other forces rolled past to press the offensive deeper into Ukraine.
Videos posted on Ukrainian media and social networks showed Russian vehicles moving across Kharkiv and Russian troops roaming the city in small groups. One showed Ukrainian troops firing at the Russians and damaged Russian light utility vehicles abandoned nearby.
The images underscored the determined resistance Russian troops face while attempting to enter Ukraine's bigger cities. Ukrainians have volunteered en masse to help defend the capital, Kyiv, and other cities, taking guns distributed by authorities and preparing firebombs to fight Russian forces.
Huge explosions lit up the sky early Sunday near Kyiv, where terrified residents hunkered down in homes, underground garages and subway stations in anticipation of a full-scale Russian assault.
Putin hasn't disclosed his ultimate plans, but Western officials believe he is determined to overthrow Ukraine's government and replace it with a regime of his own, redrawing the map of Europe and reviving Moscow's Cold War-era influence.
The pressure on strategic ports in the south of Ukraine appeared aimed at seizing control of the country's coastline stretching from the border with Romania in the west to the border with Russia in the east. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, said Russian forces had blocked the cities of Kherson on the Black Sea and the port of Berdyansk on the Azov Sea.
He said the Russian forces also took control of an airbase near Kherson and the Azov Sea city of Henichesk. Ukrainian authorities also have reported fighting near Odessa, Mykolaiv and other areas.
Cutting Ukraine's access to its sea ports would deal a major blow to the country's economy. It also could allow Moscow to build a land corridor to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014 and until now was connected to Russia by a 19-kilometer 12-mile bridge, the longest bridge in Europe which opened in 2018.
Flames billowed from an oil depot near an airbase in Vasylkiv, a city 23 miles south of Kyiv where there has been intense fighting, according to the mayor. Russian forces blew up a gas pipeline in Kharkiv, prompting the government to warn people to cover their windows with damp cloth or gauze as protection from smoke, the president's office said.
Ukrainian military deputy commander Lt.-Gen. Yevhen Moisiuk sounded a defiant note in a message aimed at Russian troops.
"Unload your weapons, raise your hands so that our servicemen and civilians can understand that you have heard us. This is your ticket home," Moisiuk said in a Facebook video.
The U.S. pledged an additional $350 million in military assistance to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, body armor and small arms. Germany said it would send missiles and anti-tank weapons to the besieged country and that it would close its airspace to Russian planes.
The U.S., European Union and United Kingdom agreed to block "selected" Russian banks from the, which moves money around more than 11,000 banks and other financial institutions worldwide, part of a new round of sanctions aiming to impose a severe cost on Moscow for the invasion. They also agreed to impose "restrictive measures" on Russia's central bank.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, meanwhile, said Sunday that his country is committing 100 billion euros, or $112.7 billion, to a special fund for its armed forces, raising its defense spending above 2% of gross domestic product. Scholz told a special session of the Bundestag the investment was needed "to protect our freedom and our democracy."
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