KIEV, Ukraine – As a result of the sharp escalation of tensions between East and West over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin has ordered that Russia’s nuclear forces be put on high alert in response to what he called “aggressive statements” by leading NATO nations.
The directive to bring Russia’s nuclear weapons into a state of heightened readiness for launch has raised fears that the crisis could escalate into a nuclear war – by design or by mistake.
Putin’s move “potentially includes forces that, if miscalculated, could make things much, much more dangerous,” a senior US defense official said on condition of anonymity.
Amid rising tensions, Ukraine has announced that the delegation will meet with Russian officials for talks. But the Kremlin’s ultimate goals in Ukraine – and what steps may be enough to satisfy Moscow – remained unclear.
Rapid developments occurred as Russian troops approached Kiev, a city of nearly 3 million, in Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, street fighting broke out and strategic ports in the south came under pressure from invaders. Ukrainian defenders put up fierce resistance, which seemed to slow the invasion.
In giving the directive on nuclear alarm, Putin referred not only to the statements of NATO members, but also to the severe financial sanctions imposed by the West against Russia, including the Russian leader himself.
Speaking at a meeting with top officials, Putin told his defense minister and chief of staff to transfer the nuclear force to a “special combat duty regime.”
“Western countries are not only taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic sphere, but also high-ranking officials of leading NATO member states have made aggressive statements against our country,” Putin said in a televised commentary.
U.S. defense officials will not disclose their current nuclear stance, except that the military is always ready to defend their homeland and allies.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Putin was referring to a pattern he had used a few weeks before the invasion, “which is to create threats that do not exist to justify further aggression.” She told ABC this week that Russia is not under threat from either NATO or Ukraine.
“We have the ability to defend ourselves, but we also need to voice what we see here,” Psaki said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN in response to Russia’s nuclear alarm: “This is dangerous rhetoric. This is behavior that is irresponsible.”
The practical meaning of Putin’s order was not immediately clear. Usually in Russia and the United States, ground and submarine-based nuclear forces are on alert and ready for combat at all times, but bombers and other nuclear-capable aircraft are not.
If Putin arms or otherwise increases the nuclear readiness of his bombers, or if he orders more submarines with ballistic missiles to go to sea, the United States may feel compelled to respond in the same way, says Hans Christensen, a nuclear analyst at the World Nuclear Power Federation. . American scientists. That would mean an alarming escalation, he said.
Max Bergman, a former State Department official, called Putin’s conversation a predictable but dangerous sword swing. “It could get out of hand,” said Bergman, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Around the same time as Putin’s nuclear move, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said in a telegram program that the parties would meet at an indefinite location on the border with Belarus. The message does not specify the exact time of the meeting.
Ukrainian officials initially declined to hold talks in Belarus, saying any discussions should take place elsewhere, as Belarus has allowed Russian troops to use its territory as a site for invasion.
Earlier on Sunday in the Ukrainian capital Kiev was terribly quiet after huge explosions lit up the morning sky, and authorities reported explosions at one of the airports. Only from time to time the car appeared on a deserted main boulevard, as a strict 39-hour curfew did not allow people to go outside. Authorities have warned that anyone who dares to leave the pass will be considered a Russian saboteur.
Frightened residents instead staggered to homes, underground garages and subway stations in anticipation of a full-scale Russian attack.
“Last night was difficult – more shelling, more bombing of residential areas and civilian infrastructure,” – said Zelensky.
Until Sunday, Russian troops remained on the outskirts of Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million people, about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) south of the border with Russia, while other forces passed by to push the offensive deeper into Ukraine.
The video published in the Ukrainian media and social networks shows Russian vehicles moving around Kharkiv and Russian troops wandering around the city in small groups. One showed the Ukrainian military shelling the Russians and damaging Russian cars parked nearby.
The images underscore the strong resistance of Ukrainian forces. Ukrainians have en masse freed themselves to defend their country by seizing weapons distributed by the authorities and preparing incendiary bombs to fight Russian forces.
Ukraine is also releasing prisoners with military experience who want to fight for the country, authorities said.
Putin has not disclosed his final plans, but Western officials say he is determined to overthrow the Ukrainian government and replace it with his own regime, reshaping the map of Europe and reviving Moscow’s Cold War influence.
Pressure on strategic ports in southern Ukraine has emerged in order to seize control of the country’s coastline. A spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, Major General Igor Kanashenko, said that Russian forces had blocked the cities of Kherson on the Black Sea and the port of Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov.
He said that Russian forces also took control of the air base near Kherson and the Azov city of Genichesk. Ukrainian authorities also reported fighting near Odessa, Mykolaiv and other areas.
Reducing Ukraine’s access to seaports will deal a serious blow to the country’s economy. It could also allow Moscow to build a land corridor to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014 and has so far been connected to Russia by a 19-kilometer (12-mile) bridge.
Deputy Commander of the Ukrainian military, Lieutenant General Eugene Maisyuk, sounded a provocative note in a message to the Russian military.
“Unload your weapons, raise your hands so that our military and civilians understand that you heard us. This is your ticket home, ”Maisyuk said in a Facebook video.
The number of casualties in Europe’s largest land conflict since World War II remained unclear in the fog of battle. While the fighting in Ukraine has not yet been compared to the bloodshed of World War II, Russia has a long history in Chechnya and Syria, which uses indiscriminate bombing of cities to quell resistance.
Ukraine’s health minister said on Saturday that 198 people, including three children, had been killed and more than 1,000 injured. It was unclear whether these figures included both military and civilian casualties. Russia has not released any reports of casualties.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN Sergei Kislitsa wrote on Twitter on Saturday that Ukraine had appealed to the International Committee of the Red Cross to “facilitate the repatriation of thousands of bodies of Russian soldiers.” The accompanying chart claimed that 3,500 Russian servicemen had been killed.
The UN refugee agency said on Sunday that about 368,000 Ukrainians had arrived in neighboring countries since the invasion began on Thursday. The UN estimates the conflict could lead to 4 million refugees.
The West is working to equip predominant Ukrainian forces with weapons and ammunition, punishing Russia with far-reaching sanctions aimed at further isolating Moscow.
Last weekend, the United States promised an additional $ 350 million in military aid to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, body armor and small arms. Germany has said it will send missiles and anti-tank weapons.
The United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom have also agreed to block some Russian banks from SWIFT’s global financial messaging system, which moves money to more than 11,000 banks and other financial institutions around the world. They also agreed to impose restrictive measures on Russia’s central bank.
Putin sent troops to Ukraine after creating an army of nearly 200,000 along the country’s borders. He claims that the West has failed to take seriously Russia’s security concerns about NATO, the Western military alliance that Ukraine seeks to join. But he also expressed contempt for Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state.
Russia says its attack on Ukraine is aimed only at military targets, but has affected bridges, schools and neighborhoods.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, said Ukraine was gathering evidence of shelling of residential neighborhoods, kindergartens and hospitals for transfer to the International War Crimes Tribunal.
Isachenko reported from Moscow. Ellen Nickmeyer, Robert Burns and Hope Ian in Washington; Francesca Ebel, Joseph Federman and Andrew Drake in Kiev; Mstislav Chernov and Nick Dumitrache in Mariupol, Ukraine; and other AP journalists from around the world contributed to this report.
Follow the coverage of the crisis in Ukraine in the AP at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Putin puts nuclear forces on alert, rising tensions :: WRAL.com
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