Vladimir Putin has ordered his army to put Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces on high alert in response to “aggressive statements” from NATO countries.
The order came during a meeting between the President, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia Valery Gerasimov.
“Senior officials of the main NATO countries also allow aggressive statements against our country, so I order the Minister of Defense and the Chief of Staff [of the Russian armed forces] to transfer the deterrent forces of the Russian army to a special combat mode,” Putin said in televised comments.
“Western countries are not only taking hostile action against our country in the economic sphere, but senior officials of major NATO members have made aggressive statements regarding our country.
It’s not immediately clear what the “special combat duty mode” entails. Pavel Podvig, a Geneva-based analyst and head of the Russian nuclear forces project, said it was “difficult to say” what the order meant, but it could be a “preliminary command”. This “makes a retaliatory strike possible”, he told the Guardian. “But that doesn’t mean preparing for a first strike.”
This doesn’t appear to be the highest level of readiness, including bombers loaded with weapons and taking off. “It’s an action that allows command and control to react if necessary,” Podvig said. “But it’s a pretty high level.”
Putin has warned foreign countries not to interfere in his invasion of Ukraine, saying it could lead to “consequences they have never seen”. It has positioned anti-aircraft missiles and other advanced missile systems in Belarus and deployed its fleet to the Black Sea in an attempt to prevent Western intervention in Ukraine.
The US ambassador to the United Nations responded to the news from Moscow during an appearance on CBS. “President Putin continues to escalate this war in a totally unacceptable way,” said Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “And we must continue to condemn his actions in the loudest and strongest way possible.”
The Russian invasion caused hundreds of deaths. Russia has launched missile strikes against buildings in Kiev, Kharkiv and other major Ukrainian cities as it threatens an all-out assault not seen since World War II.
Kharkiv residents were told to stay indoors by its governor, Oleg Sinegubov, who said “there has been a breakthrough in light equipment, including in the central part of the city”. A nine-story building was reportedly hit, killing one woman.
Russian forces also blew up a gas pipeline in the city, Ukraine’s state special communications service said, prompting the government to warn of a potential “environmental disaster” and urge people to protect themselves from the smoke by covering their windows.
Air raid sirens sounded in Kiev early on Sunday, hours after the US, Britain and European countries announced tougher sanctions targeting Russian banks, including banning some from the Swift international payment system .