JURAS KARMANOV, JIM HEINZ, VLADIMIR ISACHANKOV and DASHA LITVINOVA
Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – As a result of a 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 NATO leaders. .
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 announced that the country’s delegation had agreed to 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 came after scattered fighting was reported in Kyiv, in Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, and strategic ports in the south were attacked by Russian troops.
As Russian troops approach Kiev, a city of nearly 3 million, the capital’s mayor has expressed doubts that civilians can be evacuated.
Across the country, Ukrainian defenders put up fierce resistance, which seemed to slow Russia’s advance.
“I wish I had never lived to see that,” said 87-year-old Faina Bystritskaya, a World War II survivor. She said that in her hometown of Chernihiv, which is in battle, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) from Kiev, sirens sound almost constantly.
Chernihiv residents were ordered not to turn on the lights “so that we would not attract their attention,” said Bystritskaya, who lives in a corridor away from the windows to better protect herself.
“The window glass is shaking all the time, and there’s thunder all the time,” she said.
Meanwhile, a senior EU official outlined plans by a bloc of 27 countries to close its airspace to Russian airlines and finance the purchase of weapons for Ukraine.
“For the first time, the European Union will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to the country under attack,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The EU will also ban some pro-Kremlin media, she said.
Putin, in giving the directive on nuclear alarm, referred not only to statements by NATO members who rushed to strengthen members of the military alliance in Eastern Europe, but also to tough financial sanctions imposed by the West against Russia, including Putin 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 level of nuclear readiness, except that the military is always ready to defend their homeland and allies.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told ABC that 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.”
The practical meaning of Putin’s order was not immediately clear. Normally in Russia and the United States, ground and submarine-based nuclear forces are on alert and always ready for combat, 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.
At about the same time as Putin’s nuclear move, the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that the parties would meet at an unspecified location on the Belarusian border. The statement did not specify the exact time of the meeting.
Earlier on Sunday in 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 leaves without a pass will be considered a Russian saboteur.
Frightened residents rushed to houses, underground garages and subway stations in anticipation of a full-scale Russian attack. Deliveries of food and medicine have ended, said Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko.
Authorities are distributing weapons to anyone who wants to defend the city, amid warnings from Russian saboteurs disguised as Ukrainian police or journalists. Ukraine also releases prisoners of war with military experience who want to fight, and trains people to make bombs.
“Now the most important issue is to protect our country,” Klitschko said.
Pentagon officials said Russian troops were slowing down due to Ukraine’s resistance, fuel shortages and other logistical problems, and that Ukraine’s air defense systems, although weakened, were still working.
But a senior U.S. defense official said that was likely to change: “We are on the fourth day. The Russians will learn and adapt. “
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, reviving Moscow’s Cold War influence.
The fighting in southern Ukraine was aimed at seizing control of the country’s coastline. Reducing Ukraine’s access to seaports will deal a serious blow to the country’s economy.
The death toll from Europe’s largest land conflict since World War II has remained unclear in the fog of war.
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.
A spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry, Major General Igor Kanashenko, did not give figures for the dead and wounded on Sunday, but said his country’s losses were “many times” smaller than Ukraine’s.
The UN refugee agency said on Sunday that about 368,000 Ukrainians had arrived in neighboring countries since the invasion began on Thursday.
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 the SWIFT system, which moves money to thousands of banks and other financial institutions around the world. They also moved on to imposing restrictions 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.
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