MOSCOW, Russia — In a dramatic escalation of East-West tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces put on high alert Sunday in response to what he called “aggressive statements” by leading NATO powers.
The directive to put Russia’s nuclear weapons in an increased state of readiness for launch raised fears that the crisis could boil over into nuclear warfare, whether by design or mistake.
Putin's step is “potentially putting in play forces that, if there’s a miscalculation, could make things much, much more dangerous,” said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Amid the mounting tensions, Ukraine announced that a delegation would meet with Russian officials for talks. But the Kremlin’s ultimate aims in Ukraine — and what steps might be enough to satisfy Moscow — remained unclear.
The fast-moving developments came as Russian troops drew closer to Kyiv, a city of almost 3 million, 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 slow the invasion.
Putin, in giving the nuclear alert directive, cited not only 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 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.
U.S. defense officials would not disclose their current nuclear posture, except to say that the military is prepared all times to defend its homeland and allies.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Putin is 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.” She told ABC's “This Week” that Russia has not been under threat from NATO or Ukraine.
“We have the ability to defend ourselves, but we also need to call out what we’re seeing here," Psaki said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN, in reaction to Russia's nuclear alert: "This is dangerous rhetoric. This is a behavior which is irresponsible."
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. That would mark a worrisome escalation, he said.
Max Bergmann, a former State Department official, called Putin's talk predictable but dangerous saber rattling. “Things could spiral out of control," said Bergmann, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Around the same time as Putin's nuclear move, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy'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.
Ukrainian officials initially rejected the holding of talks in Belarus, saying any discussions should take place elsewhere, since Belarus has allowed its territory to be used by Russian troops as a staging ground for the invasion.
As Russia pushes ahead with its offensive, the West is working to equip the outnumbered Ukrainian forces with weapons and ammunition while punishing Russia with far-reaching sanctions intended to further isolate Moscow.
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 SWIFT global financial messaging system, 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 ($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.”
Putin sent troops into Ukraine after denying for weeks that he intended to do so, all the while building up a force of almost 200,000 troops along the countries’ borders. He claims the West has failed to take seriously Russia’s security concerns about NATO, the Western military alliance that Ukraine aspires to join. But he has also expressed scorn about Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state.