Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military command to put nuclear forces on high alert on Sunday as Ukrainian fighters defending the city of Kharkiv said they had repelled an attack by invading Russian troops.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that “President Putin is continuing to escalate this war in a manner that is totally unacceptable and we have to continue to stem his actions in the strongest possible way.”
On the fourth day of the biggest assault on a European state since World War Two, the Ukrainian president’s office said negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow would be held at the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. They would meet without preconditions, it said.
Thousands of Ukrainian civilians, mainly women and children, were fleeing from the Russian assault into neighboring countries.
The capital Kyiv was still in Ukrainian government hands, with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy rallying his people despite Russian shelling of civilian infrastructure.
But Putin, who has described the invasion as a “special military operation,” thrust an alarming new element into play on Sunday when he ordered Russia’s deterrence forces – a reference to units which include nuclear arms – onto high alert.
He cited aggressive statements by NATO leaders and economic sanctions imposed by the West against Moscow.
“As you can see, not only do Western countries take unfriendly measures against our country in the economic dimension – I mean the illegal sanctions that everyone knows about very well – but also the top officials of leading NATO countries allow themselves to make aggressive statements with regards to our country,” an unhinged Putin said on state television.
NATO countries, including the United States, have pledged not to send troops into Ukraine, but they’ve also maintained a commitment to defend member nations from any Russian advance.
Russia had about 6,850 nuclear warheads as of 2017, the most of any nation in the world. The United States comes in a close second, with 6,185 as of 2018. Outside of testing, atomic weapons have only been used once in warfare, in August 1945, when the U.S. dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, leading to the nearly-unconditional Japanese surrender.
For decades, scientific experts have argued that even a limited nuclear exchange between nations would kill millions of people and plunge the planet into a “nuclear winter,” endangering all life on Earth.
With reporting by Robert Pozarycki