In a dramatic escalation of East-West tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces put on high alert Sunday in response to what he called “aggressive statements” by leading NATO powers.
The order means Putin wants Russia’s nuclear weapons prepared for increased readiness to launch and raises the threat that Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and the West's response to it could boil over into nuclear warfare.
Putin, in giving the nuclear alert directive, cited not only the alleged statements by NATO members but the hard-hitting financial sanctions imposed by the West against Russia, including the Russian leader himself.
Specifically, according to Fox News Digital, Putin ordered his nuclear forces to a heightened "special regime of combat duty."
"He is right now threatening a nuclear escalation," former DIA intelligence officer Rebekah Koffler told the outlet. "This a veiled threat – or maybe such a veiled threat - he just met with his chief of general staff and minister of defense. He is escalating the conflict into the nuclear domain in order to de-escalate – that is topple Kyiv’s regime quickly."
The threat comes amid reports that both sides are preparing for a diplomatic meeting at the border of Belarus on Monday, though the details are still sketchy as of this writing.
“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 noted in remarks that were televised.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki claimed that Putin was simply returning to a pattern used in the weeks leading up to his invasion of Ukraine, "which is to manufacture threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression.
"The global community and American people should look at it through that prism. We’ve seen him do this time and time again," she said, according to the AP.
She told ABC's “This Week” that Moscow is not, and has not been, under threat from NATO or Ukraine.
“This is all a pattern from President Putin and we’re going to stand up ... we have the ability to defend ourselves but we also need to call out what we’re seeing here,” Psaki said.
Other U.S. officials responded to the heightened nuclear forces alert as well.
“President Putin is continuing to escalate this war in a manner that is totally unacceptable,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on a Sunday news program. “And we have to continue to condemn his actions in the most strong, strongest possible way.”
The AP explained, "The practical meaning of Putin’s order was not immediately clear. Russia and the United States typically have the land- and submarine-based segments of their strategic nuclear forces on alert and prepared for combat at all times, but nuclear-capable bombers and other aircraft are not."
Meanwhile, Russian troops are moving against the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the country's largest city, and its second-biggest city, Kharkiv. Reports noted that explosions could be heard and fighting was heavy in portions of both cities as Russian forces meet more resistance than they expected.
Riho Terras, a former defense chief in Estonia and member of the European Parliament, claimed in a Twitter thread posted Saturday that Putin has grown increasingly frustrated with a lack of progress on the ground, saying the Russian leader expected far less resistance than his troops have met.
"Putin is furious, he thought that the whole war would be easy and everything would be done in 1-4 days. Russians didn’t have a tactical plan. The war costs about $20 bln/day. There are rockets for 3-4 days at most, they use them sparingly. They lack weapons, the Tula and 2 Rotenberg plants can’t physically fulfil [sp] the orders for weapons. Rifles and ammo are the most they can do," he wrote in one tweet.