Russia, Ukraine agree to meet after Putin puts nuclear forces on alert
NATO secretary general calls Russian president's move 'dangerous rhetoric' and 'irresponsible'
In a dramatic escalation of East-West tensions over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered that Russian nuclear forces be put on high alert Sunday in response to what he called "aggressive statements" by leading NATO powers.
Ukraine later announced a delegation would meet with Russian officials for talks. But the Kremlin's ultimate intentions toward Ukraine — and what steps might be enough to satisfy Moscow — remained unclear.
Zelensky's office said on the Telegram messaging app that the two sides would be meeting at an unspecified location on the Belarusian border.
Russia had announced its delegation had flown to Belarus to await talks, which were initially rejected by Ukrainian officials, who said any discussions should take place at a site other than Belarus, since it has allowed its territory to be used by Russian troops as a staging ground for the invasion.
Hours after Putin's announcement, the top official in the European Union said the 27-nation bloc will close its airspace to Russian airlines and fund the purchase of weapons for Ukraine.
"For the first time ever, the European Union will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The EU will also ban some pro-Kremlin media outlets, she said.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced the same move, tweeting Sunday morning that its airspace would be closed to Russian aircraft operators effective immediately.
Soon after the EU's announcement, Norway, which is not part of the EU, confirmed it will send non-lethal military equipment to Ukraine.
Although Sweden has traditionally remained neutral and refused to send arms to countries engaged in an active conflict, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson announced Sunday it will send military aid to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, helmets and body armour.
The fast-moving developments came as Russian troops drew closer to Kyiv, a city of almost three 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 Putin himself.
Speaking at a meeting with his top officials, Putin told his defence 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.
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.
"And we're going to stand up," Psaki said, adding: "We have the ability to defend ourselves, but we also need to call out what we're seeing here."
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN in reaction to Putin's decision to put Russia's nuclear forces on high alert: "This is dangerous rhetoric. This is a behaviour which is irresponsible."
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations also said Putin's decision is an unacceptable escalation.
"It means 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," Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in interview with CBS Face the Nation.
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.
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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.
Putin hasn't disclosed his ultimate plans, but Western officials believe he is determined to overthrow Ukraine's government and replace it with a regime of his own, redrawing the map of Europe and reviving Moscow's Cold War-era influence.
The U.S., European Union and Britain also 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. They also agreed to impose restrictive measures on Russia's central bank.
Economic sanctions for Russia, Putin
President Joe Biden has said the United States would not engage in war with Russia, but will meet its Article 5 commitments to defend partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Western nations have agreed to send aid and supplies and have imposed economic sanctions on Russia.
The United States and European nations agreed Saturday to impose the most potentially harsh financial penalties yet on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, going after the central bank reserves that underpin the Russian economy and severing some Russian banks from a vital global financial network.
"Putin embarked on a path aiming to destroy Ukraine, but what he is also doing, in fact, is destroying the future of his own country," EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.
The European Union, United States, United Kingdom and other allies have steadily stepped up the intensity of their sanctions since Russia launched the invasion late last week.
While U.S. and European officials made clear they were still working out the mechanics of how to implement the latest measures, and intend to spare Russia's oil and natural gas exports, the sanctions in total potentially could amount to some of the toughest levied on a nation in modern times. If fully carried out as planned, the measures would likely severely damage the Russian economy and constrain its ability to import and export goods.
The U.S. and European allies announced the moves in a joint statement as part of a new round of financial sanctions meant to "hold Russia to account and collectively ensure that this war is a strategic failure for Putin."
The central bank restrictions target access to the more than $600 billion US in reserves that the Kremlin has at its disposal, and are meant to block Russia's ability to support the ruble as it plunges in value amid tightening Western sanctions.
With files from Reuters and CBC News