President Vladimir Putin put his country's nuclear deterrence forces on high alert on Sunday, announcing the move in a televised meeting with top ministers, coming as Russian troops and tanks continue to wage a conflict in Ukraine.
“Western countries are not only taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic area. I'm speaking about the illegitimate sanctions that everyone is well aware of. However, the top officials of the leading NATO countries also make aggressive statements against our country as well,” Putin said on Sunday, according to state-run media.
As a result, Putin said that he has ordered "the minister of Defense and the chief of the general staff [of the Russian armed forces] to transfer the deterrence forces of the Russian army to a special mode of combat duty,” according to televised comments he made. The deterrence forces include command of Russia's vast arsenal of nuclear weapons.
It is not immediately clear what the "special mode of combat duty" means. Previously, when Putin announced the Russian invasion earlier this week, he warned that if other countries get involved, they will face "consequences they have never seen."
Later on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said via social media that he will send a delegation to the Ukraine-Belarus border to hold talks with Russian officials "without preconditions" about the ongoing conflict. Zelensky said he spoke with Belarus's leadership and said they would allow the negotiations.
But Putin's order means Russia’s nuclear weapons prepared for increased readiness to launch, raising the threat that the tensions between Moscow and NATO could boil over into nuclear strikes.
During a CBS News appearance, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, responded to Putin's statement on Sunday.
“President Putin is continuing to escalate this war in a manner that is totally unacceptable,” Thomas-Greenfield said on Sunday morning. “And we have to continue to condemn his actions in the most strong, strongest possible way.”
Also Sunday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, an ally of Putin, warned the West against imposing tough sanctions on Russia and Belarus, claiming that the measures could push Russia into a "third world war."
“Now there is a lot of talk against the banking sector. Gas, oil, SWIFT. It's worse than war. This is pushing Russia into a third world war,” Lukashenko told local state media, referring to sanctions.
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.
The 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. 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 remarked. “There is not a single facility in the country that the occupiers wouldn’t consider as admissible targets.”
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 light utility vehicles abandoned nearby.