Putin puts nuclear forces on alert on frantic day of war and diplomacy

Kyiv: In a dramatic escalation of tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces put on high alert on Sunday in response to what he called “aggressive statements” by leading NATO powers.

The directive came just minutes before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed a delegation from Kyiv would meet Russian representatives on the Belarusian border for peace talks.

An armoured personnel carrier burns after fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city.Credit:AP

But the Kremlin’s ultimate aims in Ukraine – and what steps might be enough to satisfy Moscow – remained unclear.

Hours after Putin’s announcement, the top official in the European Union said the 27-nation bloc would close its airspace to all Russian planes, including commercial aircraft and private jets owned by oligarchs. The EU also announced it would purchase and send more weapons to Ukraine.

“For the first time ever, the European Union will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The EU will also ban some pro-Kremlin media outlets, she said.

The fast-moving developments came as Russian troops drew closer to Kyiv, a city of almost 3 million people.

Locals prepare Molotov cocktails in a backyard in Kyiv ahead of the arrival of Russian forces.Credit:AP

Separately, street fighting broke out in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and strategic ports in the country’s south came under pressure from the invading forces.

Ukrainian defenders put up stiff resistance that appeared to be slowing the invasion.

Putin, in giving the nuclear alert directive, cited not only statements by NATO members – who have rushed to reinforce the military alliance’s members in eastern Europe – but the hard-hitting financial sanctions imposed by the West against Russia, including against the Russian leader himself.

Speaking at a meeting with his top officials, Putin told his Defence Minister and the chief of his military’s general staff to put nuclear 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.

US defence officials would not disclose their current nuclear posture, except to say that the military was prepared at all times to defend its homeland and allies.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Putin was resorting to a pattern he used in the weeks before launching the invasion, “which is to manufacture threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN, that Putin’s nuclear move was dangerous and irresponsible rhetoric.

The practical meaning of Putin’s order was not immediately clear. Russia and the United States typically have land- and submarine-based 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, said Hans Kristensen, a nuclear analyst at the Federation of American Scientists.

Around the same time as Putin’s nuclear move, Zelensky’s office announced that the two sides would meet on the Belarusian border. A precise time was not announced.

Airport workers prepare a plane loaded with humanitarian aid at Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens on Sunday. It was destined for Poland.Credit:AP

Ukrainian officials initially rejected talks in Belarus, saying any discussions should take place elsewhere, since Belarus had allowed its territory to be used by Russian troops as a staging ground for the invasion.

Kyiv waits for invading forces

Earlier on Sunday, the Ukrainian 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. Authorities warned that anyone venturing out with a pass would be considered a Russian saboteur.

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,” Zelensky said.

Kharkiv under siege

Until Sunday, Russia’s troops had remained on the outskirts of Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million about 20 kilometres 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 vehicles abandoned nearby.

The images underscored the determined resistance from Ukrainian forces. Ukrainians have volunteered en masse to defend their country, taking guns distributed by authorities and preparing homemade Molotov cocktails to fight Russian forces.

Ukraine was also releasing prisoners with military experience to fight for the country, authorities said.

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, reviving Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.

The fighting in the south of Ukraine appeared aimed at seizing control of the country’s coastline.

A Russian Defence 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 reported fighting near Odessa, Mykolaiv and other areas.

Police detain an anti-war protester in St Petersburg, Russia’s second city, on Sunday.Credit:AP

Cutting Ukraine’s access to its ports would deal a major blow to the country’s economy. It could also allow Moscow to build a land corridor to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014 and until now was connected to Russia by a 19-kilometre bridge.

Ukrainian military deputy commander Lieutenant General 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 number of casualties from Europe’s largest land conflict since World War II remained unclear amid the fog of war.

Ukraine’s Health Minister reported on Saturday that 198 people, including three children, had been killed and more than 1000 others wounded. It was unclear whether those figures included both military and civilian casualties. Russia has not released any casualty figures.

Ukraine’s UN ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, tweeted on Saturday an appeal to the International Committee of the Red Cross “to facilitate repatriation of thousands of bodies of Russian soldiers.” An accompanying chart claimed 3500 Russian troops had been killed.

The UN refugee agency said on Sunday that about 368,000 Ukrainians had arrived in neighbouring countries since the invasion started on Thursday. The UN has estimated the conflict could produce as many as 4 million refugees.

The West is working to equip the outnumbered Ukrainian forces with weapons and ammunition, while punishing Russia with far-reaching sanctions.

A man carries his one-month-old as he arrives in Poland after crossing the border in Kroscienko on Sunday.Credit:Getty Images

Over the weekend, the US pledged an additional $US350 million in military assistance to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, body armour and small arms. Germany said it would send missiles and anti-tank weapons.

The US, the EU and Britain also agreed to block selected Russian banks from the SWIFT system, which moves money around more than 11,000 banks and other financial institutions worldwide. They also moved to slap restrictions on Russia’s central bank.

Civilian protests took place across the world, with tens of thousands turning out in Berlin to – in part – pressure the German government to do more to end the conflict.

In cities across Russia, police detained anti-war demonstrators who took part in protests for a third day running.

AP

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