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Putin puts nuclear forces on alert, Ukraine agrees to peace talks

Russian forces push into Ukrainian second city of Kharkiv but capital Kyiv still under government control.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his nuclear forces on high alert Sunday, in an ominous reminder that he has the power to use weapons of mass destruction, after complaining about the West’s response to his invasion of Ukraine.

Putin’s threat came after Russian forces penetrated Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, where there were reports of mounting civilian casualties on Sunday as fighting intensified across the country. The Russians also ramped up their attack on Kyiv with heavy bombardments, but Ukrainian troops retained control of the capital. Shelling continued in the Kyiv region Sunday afternoon, the Ukrainian government said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Sunday afternoon that he agreed to peace talks on the border with Belarus, after earlier rejecting the Belarusian capital Minsk as a venue. Following a conversation with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Zelenskiy said on Telegram that delegations from Ukraine and Russia would meet “without preconditions on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, near the Pripyat River.”

Putin’s nuclear declaration came in the latest in a series of highly-staged meetings, broadcast to the Russian public on video, this time with his top military commanders, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the general staff of the Russian military, Valery Gerasimov.

“The top officials of the leading NATO countries allow aggressive statements against our country,” Putin griped, a day after Germany and other European countries said they would speed weapons and other military assistance to help Ukraine battle the Russian invaders.

“Therefore, I order the Minister of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff to transfer the deterrence forces of the Russian army to a special mode of combat duty,” Putin declared.

Western leaders have repeatedly made clear they have no intention of attacking Russia, or even of sending their own troops to fight Russian forces in Ukraine. But they have moved to impose severe economic sanctions on Moscow and to strengthen their defenses against Russia.

In the latest of several historic policy shifts from Berlin in recent days, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his government would set up a special €100 billion fund to swiftly upgrade its armed forces and that Germany will in future adhere to the NATO goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense.

The incursion into Kharkiv, reported by the regional governor, suggested the city could soon fall, allowing Russian forces to push south. Russian troops have also made advances near Mariupol, a city on the Sea of Azov, and were reported to be turning north, in what seemed to be an effort to encircle Ukrainian forces positioned along the line of contact in the long-running war against separatists in Donbass.

In Kharkiv, Russian troops blew up a gas pipeline, which Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communication and Information Protection warned could cause an “environmental catastrophe.” The authorities urged residents to cover their windows with damp cloth or gauze. A similar warning was issued to residents of the Kyiv region because of thick smoke from the oil depot blaze in Vasylkiv, where a military air base is also located.

On the fourth day of heavy fighting, Ukraine still held its capital — defying expectations, particularly of Putin, who was reported in Moscow to have ordered his forces to take Kyiv by Monday at any cost.

By many accounts, the Ukrainian military put up a far stronger and more effective defense against the better-equipped Russians than anyone anticipated, holding the capital but also creating an acute risk that Moscow would turn to the type of indiscriminate bombing it employed in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, and in Aleppo, Syria, where it mercilessly attacked opponents of the Kremlin-backed dictator Bashar al-Assad.

While EU countries announced plans to send more lethal weapons to Ukraine, it was unclear how fast those arms could be delivered and deployed. In Kyiv, in particular, there seemed a high risk that the war would soon morph into terrifying urban warfare, with citizens battling invading tanks and soldiers on the streets.

Speaking to the BBC Sunday morning, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.K. Vadym Prystaiko criticized Germany for blocking the supply of military aid before the conflict started and in the initial days of the war. “Look at the Germans … They were blocking the supplies in NATO [of] weapons to Ukraine. Now they offered Ukraine 500 helmets. Now they are coming with everything which is needed but we are already fighting and it might not be enough — or too late,” he said.

Diplomats and officials in close contact with Ukrainian authorities said there was an urgent need for medical supplies, as Russia intensified its bombardments, not only in Kyiv and Kharkiv, but also in Sumy and other cities, and casualties mounted.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov trumpeted his military’s resilience in a post on social media, saying it had proved doubters wrong. “72 hours of resistance!” he tweeted. “The world didn’t believe. The world doubted. But we did not just stand, we confidently continue to fight.”

Western officials and military and intelligence analysts said Moscow appeared to have miscalculated the difficulties, and it was clear that Russia was suffering significant, and increasing losses. The Ukrainian defense ministry said in a statement that, over the course of Saturday, Ukraine had downed 18 helicopters, 16 aircraft, 102 tanks, 540 combat vehicles and one Buk missile system.

Ukraine said Russia had lost 3,000 military personnel, a statistic that was impossible to confirm. Russia has not confirmed its losses and has largely sought to limit reporting of the war on Russian media.

Earlier, the Ukrainian Air Force said it had taken out three Russian Sukhoi Su-30 and two Sukhoi Su-25 jet fighters, and a second giant Il-76 transporter plane, which can carry large numbers of airborne troops.

Meanwhile, EU countries are closing their airspace to Russian airlines. Belgium, Ireland and Iceland on Sunday said they are closing their skies to Russian planes, while Sweden, Finland, Denmark said they’re preparing to do so. Bans already are in place in the U.K., Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia the Baltic States, Romania and Bulgaria.

On Sunday morning, Zelenskiy’s office announced the formation of a new unit, the International Legion of the Territorial Defense of Ukraine, to be made up of foreigners who wish to fight for the country. “Foreigners willing to defend Ukraine and world order as part of the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, I invite you to contact foreign diplomatic missions of Ukraine in your respective countries,” Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter. “Together we defeated Hitler, and we will defeat Putin, too.”

U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Sunday that she supports British citizens going to Ukraine to join the fight against Russia. The Ukrainian embassy in London said it had been “bombarded” with people seeking to join the fight.

Ukraine’s defense ministry said on Sunday that Moscow’s main tactic appeared to be the “capture of small cities, villages and connecting motorways,” while deploying rockets on major urban centers like Kyiv.

On Saturday, Ukraine’s Health Minister Viktor Liashko said Russian forces had killed 198 Ukrainians, including three children, with 1,115 wounded, 33 children among them.

The number of refugees from Ukraine who have crossed to Poland, Hungary, Romania, Moldova and other countries has grown to 368,000, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said Sunday.

“The governments and people of those countries are welcoming refugees. It is now urgent to share this responsibility in concrete ways,” he said.

Internal displacement within Ukraine is also growing, with many residents fleeing west, but the military situation made it difficult to estimate numbers, let alone provide aid.

Zelenskiy said on Sunday that Ukraine has filed suit against Russia at the UN International Court of Justice in The Hague. “Russia must be held accountable” Zelenskiy said in a tweet. “We request an urgent decision ordering Russia to cease military activity now and expect trials to start next week.”

Even as the reality of war in Europe finally seemed to sink in on Saturday and Western capitals intensified their response, announcing sanctions that would cut off some Russian banks for the SWIFT international payments system, the fate of Ukraine seemed certain to be decided on the battlefield.

Reznikov, the defense minister, told Ukrainians “help is coming,” adding: “Many have finally conquered fear and dared to challenge the Kremlin. Help which was impossible three days ago is coming.”


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