KYIV, UKRAINE (AP) – President Vladimir Putin dramatically escalated East-West tensions by ordering Russian nuclear forces put on high alert on Sunday, while Ukraine’s embattled leader agreed to talks with Moscow as Putin’s troops and tanks drove deeper into the country, closing in around the capital.
Citing “aggressive statements” by NATO and tough financial sanctions, Putin issued a directive to increase the readiness of Russia’s nuclear weapons, raising fears that the invasion of Ukraine could lead to nuclear war, whether by design or mistake.
The Russian leader is “potentially putting in play forces that, if there’s a miscalculation, could make things much, much more dangerous”, said a senior United States (US) defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss rapidly unfolding military operations.
Putin’s directive came as Russian forces encountered strong resistance from Ukraine defenders. Moscow has so far failed to win full control of Ukraine’s airspace, despite advances across the country. US officials said they believe the invasion has been more difficult, and slower, than the Kremlin envisioned, though that could change as Moscow adapts.
Amid the mounting tensions, Western nations said they would tighten sanctions and buy and deliver weapons for Ukraine, including Stinger missiles for shooting down helicopters and other aircraft.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office, meanwhile, announced plans for a meeting with a Russian delegation at an unspecified location on the Belarusian border.
It wasn’t immediately clear when the meeting would take place, nor what the Kremlin was ultimately seeking, either in those potential talks on the border or, more broadly, from its war in Ukraine. Western officials believe Putin wants to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own, reviving Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.