Vladimir Putin has ordered that Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces are put on high alert.
The president said aggressive statements by NATO leaders and economic sanctions against Moscow were behind the decision.
Speaking on state television on Sunday, he said: “As you can see, not only do Western countries take unfriendly measures against our country in the economic dimension – illegitimate sanctions that everyone knows about.
Follow live updates: Blasts heard in Kyiv and Kharkiv as Zelenskyy says next 24 hours ‘crucial’ for Ukraine
“But also the highest-ranking officials of leading NATO countries are allowing themselves to make aggressive statements in relation to our country.
“For this reason I order the minister of defence and the chief of general staff to put deterrent forces on special combat duty.”
Key developments in the Ukraine crisis:
• Putin orders nuclear deterrent forces to be put on high alert
• Zelenskyy: Ukraine and Russia to hold talks at Belarus border
• Ukraine claims control of key city Kharkiv after fierce clashes
• Foreign secretary warns conflict could last ‘years’
• BP to offload its stake in state-owned Russian oil giant Rosneft
‘Incredibly dramatic, escalatory move’
Sky News Moscow correspondent Diana Magnay described the decision as an “incredibly dramatic, escalatory move”, which will “really, really worry people”.
“This is the first time that we’ve ever had a situation, in Putin’s reign at least, where he has put his nuclear forces ready essentially for combat duty, on high alert,” she said.
The move will heighten fears across the West that Russian forces could use nuclear weapons in the conflict with Ukraine.
Putin’s nuclear threat: Escalation or desperation?
Russia’s decision to raise the spectre of a nuclear option in the Ukraine war is a significant escalation, but also perhaps a sign of desperation.
Nuclear weapons are designed to pose the ultimate deterrence to a nuclear-armed enemy.
But Russia’s nuclear doctrine also allows for smaller, tactical nuclear warheads to be threatened in a conventional conflict in the hope that the other side capitulates in fear. It is referred to as “escalate to de-escalate”.
If the enemy does not back down, then Russia could in theory launch a limited – in relative terms – nuclear strike to inflict such punishing damage as to force a victory. An abhorrent thought – making for a deliberately escalatory threat by the Kremlin.
Read the full analysis here.
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A senior White House official described it as “yet another escalatory and totally unnecessary step”.
They said in a statement: “At every step of this conflict, Putin has manufactured threats to justify more aggressive actions.
“He was never under threat from Ukraine or from NATO, which is a defensive alliance that will not fight in Ukraine.
“The only reason his forces face a threat today is because they invaded a sovereign country, and one without nuclear weapons.”
Meanwhile Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sparked hopes of a diplomatic solution to the crisis by agreeing to talks with the Russians.
He had initially rejected the offer of negotiations in Minsk due to Belarus’s strategic links with the Kremlin.
But he has now agreed to talks on the border of the two nations, his office said on Sunday.
Protests in Russia and around the world
It comes after Ukrainians spent a fourth night largely underground sheltering from Russian forces following the initial invasion on Thursday.
In cities in Russia and other countries across the world, protests took place against the invasion on Sunday.
Late on Saturday, G7 leaders finally agreed to ban selected Russian banks from the SWIFT international payment system.
On the ground in Ukraine, mayor of Kyiv Vitali Klitschko said Russian troops were still around 20 miles from the city centre.
There was “heavy fighting” in the second-largest city of Kharkiv overnight and into Sunday, but its regional governor Oleh Sinegubov insisted Ukraine retains “complete control” of it.