Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his defence chiefs to put the country’s nuclear “deterrence forces” on high alert.
He also accused the West of taking “unfriendly” steps against his country. The president said aggressive statements by high ranking NATO leaders and economic sanctions against Moscow were behind the decision.
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Putin announced the move on state television during a meeting with Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov on Sunday.
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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.
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.
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