Putin Puts Nuclear Forces on High Alert, Escalating Tensions

President Vladimir Putin dramatically escalated East-West tensions by ordering Russian nuclear forces put on high alert Sunday, while Ukraine’s embattled leader agreed to talks with Moscow as Putin’s troops and tanks drove deeper into the country.

Citing “aggressive statements” by NATO, Putin issued a directive to increase the readiness of Russia’s nuclear weapons — a step that raised fears that the invasion of Ukraine could boil over into 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 U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Amid the mounting tensions, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office announced that the two sides would meet at an unspecified location on the Belarusian border, where a Russian delegation was waiting Sunday.

But the Kremlin’s ultimate aims in Ukraine — and what steps might be enough to satisfy Moscow — remained unclear.

The fast-moving developments came as scattered fighting was reported in Kyiv, battles broke out in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and strategic ports in the country’s south came under assault from Russian forces.

With Russian troops closing in around Kyiv, a city of almost 3 million, the mayor of the capital expressed doubt civilians could be evacuated.

Putin, in ordering the nuclear alert, cited not only statements by NATO members but the hard-hitting financial sanctions imposed by the West against Russia, including Putin himself.

“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.

U.S. defense officials would not disclose their current nuclear alert level except to say that the military is prepared all times to defend its homeland and allies.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told ABC that Putin is resorting to the pattern he used in the weeks before the invasion, “which is to manufacture threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression.”

The practical meaning of Putin’s order was not immediately clear. Russia and the United States typically have land- and submarine-based nuclear forces that are on alert and prepared for combat at all times, but nuclear-capable bombers and other aircraft are not.

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 U.S. might feel compelled to respond in kind, said Hans Kristensen, a nuclear analyst at the Federation of American Scientists.