KYIV, Ukraine (AP) - 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.
Here are the things to know about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the security crisis in Eastern Europe:
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 24, 2022: Russia's President Vladimir Putin is seen during a meeting with members of Russian business community in the Moscow Kremlin. Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS (Photo by Alexei N
Russia puts nuclear forces on alert
In a shocking move that immediately unearthed fears many thought permanently buried from the Cold War of the previous century, Putin ordered Russian nuclear weapons prepared for increased readiness to launch, ratcheting up tensions with Europe and the United States over the conflict that is dangerously poised to expand beyond the former frontiers of the defunct U.S.S.R.
The Russian president told his defense minister and the chief of the military’s General Staff to put the nuclear deterrent forces in "special regime of combat duty."
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.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN that Putin's invocation of Russia's nuclear arsenal was "dangerous rhetoric."
The practical meaning of Putin’s order was not immediately clear. Russia and the United States typically have land- and submarine-based nuclear forces on alert and prepared for combat at all times, but nuclear-capable bombers and other aircraft are not.
Russia and Ukraine to hold talks
After rejecting Putin’s offer to meet in the Belarusian city of Homel on the grounds that Belarus was helping the Russian assault, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy agreed to send a Ukrainian delegation to meet Russian counterparts at an unspecified time and location on the Belarusian border.
The announcement came hours after Russia announced that its delegation had flown to Belarus to await talks. Ukrainian officials initially rejected the move, saying any talks should take place elsewhere. Belarus has allowed Russia to use its territory as a staging ground for the invasion of Ukraine.
Zelenskyy, who has refused to abandon the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, named Warsaw, Bratislava, Istanbul, Budapest or Baku as alternative venues for talks, before accepting the Belarus border.
The Kremlin added later that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had offered to help broker an end to fighting in a call with Putin. It didn’t say whether the Russian leader accepted.
Fighting spreads in Ukraine
Russian troops drew closer to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a city of almost 3 million, and street fighting broke out in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv,. Strategic ports in the country’s south were coming under pressure from attackers.
Ukrainian defenders put up stiff resistance that appeared to slow the invasion. But a U.S. official cautioned that far stronger Russian forces inevitably will learn and adapt their tactics as Russia’s assault goes on.
Only an occasional car appeared on a deserted main boulevard of Kyiv as a strict 39-hour curfew kept people off the streets until Monday morning. Authorities warned that anyone venturing out without a pass would be considered a Russian saboteur.
Terrified residents instead hunkered down in homes, underground garages and subway stations in anticipation of a full-scale Russian assault.
"I wish I had never lived to see this," said Faina Bystritska, 87, a Jewish survivor of World War II. She said sirens blare almost constantly in her hometown, Chernihiv, which is about about 150 kilometers (90 miles) from Kyiv and under attack.
Ukrainians have volunteered en masse to defend their country, taking guns distributed by authorities and preparing firebombs. Ukraine is also releasing prisoners with military experience who want to fight for the country, authorities said.
Pentagon officials said that Russian troops are being slowed by Ukrainian resistance, fuel shortages and other logistical problems, and that Ukraine’s air defense systems, while weakened, are still operating.
Many Ukranians flee, some return to fight
Those fleeing Europe’s largest armed conflict since World War II grew to 368,000 Ukrainians — mostly women and children — who have reached neighboring countries, the United Nations’ refugee agency said. That figure more than doubles the agency's estimate from the day before.
The line of vehicles at the Poland-Ukraine border stretched 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) long, and those fleeing had to endure long waits in freezing temperatures overnight. Over 100,000 people have crossed into Poland alone, according to Polish officials. Another 66,000 refugees have entered Hungary, with more than 23,000 entering on Saturday alone, according to the Hungarian officials.
In the rush to escape the bombs and tanks, a trickle of brave men and women headed home to defend Ukraine. At a border crossing in southern Poland, Associated Press journalists spoke to people in a line heading against the tide. They included 20 Ukrainian truck drivers who worked in Europe and wanted to face combat.
Germany announces significant military shift
A day after Germany, the EU's economic motor, announced it would send military aid to Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his government will increase its own defense spending to rearm amid the uncertainty of Putin’s ambitions. This move showed how Russia's invasion of Ukraine was challenging decades of European security and defense policies.
Scholz’s pledge to dedicate 100 billion euros ($113 billion) to a special fund for its armed forces would raise Germany's defense spending above 2% of GDP, finally satisfying a longstanding request by NATO allies for Europe’s largest economy to do more for the continent’s security.
Germany announced Saturday that it would send 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine. Those weapons are in addition to the 400 German-made anti-tank weapons Germany also approved to be shipped from the Netherlands.
The U.S. has also pledged an additional $350 million in military assistance to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, body armor and small arms.
Russians against the war
Defying crackdowns by police, demonstrators marched in city centers from from Moscow to Siberia chanting "No to war!"
In St. Petersburg, where several hundred gathered in the city center, police in full riot gear were grabbing one protester after another and dragging some into police vans, even though the demonstration was peaceful. Footage from Moscow showed police throwing several female protesters on the ground before dragging them away.
According to the OVD-Info rights group that tracks political arrests, by Sunday evening police detained at least 1,474 Russians in 45 cities over anti-war demonstrations that day.
"I have two sons and I don’t want to give them to that bloody monster. War is a tragedy for all of us," 48-year-old Dmitry Maltsev, who joined the rally in St. Petersburg, told The Associated Press.
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More close airspace in Russia
Europe and Canada said Sunday they would close their airspace to Russian airlines after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, raising the pressure on the United States to do the same.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the European Union would shut down its airspace for planes owned, registered or controlled by Russians, "including the private jets of oligarchs."
Canada’s transport minister, Omar Alghabra, said his nation was closing its airspace to all Russian planes to hold the country accountable for an unprovoked attack on its neighbor.
On Sunday, the U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Russia issued a bulletin saying "U.S. citizens should consider departing Russia immediately via commercial options still available" amid flight cancellations.
Officials listed these actions for U.S. citizens to take:
- Monitor local and international media for updates.
- Notify friends and family of your safety.
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- Stay alert in locations frequented by tourists/Westerners.
- Review your personal security plans.
- Carry proper identification, including a U.S. passport with a current Russian visa.
- Have a contingency plan that does not rely on U.S. government assistance.
World moves to punish Russia further
Japan joined the U.S. and European nations in cutting top Russian banks off from the SWIFT international financial messaging system. Japan will also send $100 million in emergency humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
And petroleum giant BP said Sunday it is cutting ties with Rosneft, a state-owned Russian oil and gas company. That means BP exiting its stake in Rosneft and BP officials resigning positions on the Russian company's board.
Elon Musk activates Starlink
Elon Musk said his SpaceX company’s Starlink satellite internet service is now "active" in Ukraine.
The tech billionaire made the announcement on Twitter in response to a tweet by Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation saying that while Musk tries to "colonize Mars," Russia is trying to occupy Ukraine. The minister called on Musk to provide his country with Starlink stations.
In his response Saturday, Musk said: "Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route."
Starlink is a satellite-based internet system that SpaceX has been building for years to bring internet access to underserved areas of the world. It’s powered by SpaceX’s network of nearly 2,000 low-orbit satellites.
READ MORE: Elon Musk says his Starlink internet is ‘now active’ in Ukraine
Signs of deeper financial difficulties in Russia
There were some early signs that the initial economic damage to the Russian economy is significant, as Russia's attack and retaliatory sanctions from much of the rest of the world stretched into their fourth day.
While official quotes for the Russian ruble were unchanged at roughly 84 rubles to the dollar on Sunday, one online Russian bank, Tinkoff, was giving an unofficial exchange rate of 163 rubles over the weekend.
Videos from Russia showed long lines of Russians trying to withdraw cash from ATMs, while the Russian Central Bank issued a statement calling for calm, in an effort to avoid bank runs. Reports also showed that Visa and Mastercard were no longer being accepted for those with international bank accounts.
Russia may have to close certain bank branches temporarily or declare a national bank holiday to protect its financial system, analysts said.
"If there’s a full-scale banking panic, that’s a driver of crisis in its own right," said Adam Tooze, a professor of history at Columbia University and Director of the European Institute. "A rush into dollars by the Russian general population moves things into an entirely new domain of financial warfare."
Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report. FOX Television Station writers Megan Ziegler and Chris Williams also contributed.