In a dramatic escalation of East-West tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin has ordered Russian nuclear forces to be put on high alert in response to what he called “aggressive statements” by leading Nato powers.
The order means Mr Putin wants Russia’s nuclear weapons prepared for increased readiness to launch and raises the threat that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and the West’s response to it could boil over into nuclear warfare.
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.
Mr 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, Mr Putin told his defence 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,” the Russian president said in televised comments.
Mr 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 spectre of his country’s status as a nuclear power.
The US ambassador to the United Nations responded to the news from Moscow while appearing on a Sunday news programme.
“President Putin is continuing to escalate this war in a manner that is totally unacceptable,” ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.
“And we have to continue to condemn his actions in the most strong, strongest possible way.”
The practical meaning of Mr Putin’s order was not immediately clear.
Russia and the United States typically have the land-based 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 Mr 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 worrying 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 of Russia’s invasion following a wave of attacks on airfields and fuel facilities elsewhere in the country.
Around the same time as Mr Putin’s nuclear move, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said on the Telegram messaging app that the two sides would meet at an unspecified location on the Belarusian border.
The message did not give a precise time for the meeting.
The announcement came hours after Russia announced that its delegation had flown to Belarus to await talks.