Russian nuclear deterrent forces are on high alert ahead of an emergency special session of the United Nations General Assembly on Monday called to increase diplomatic pressure on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin told the Russian defense minister to put nuclear forces in a “special regime of combat duty” Sunday, saying that leading NATO powers had made “aggressive statements” and imposed financial sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.
Following the vote for a rare U.N. special session, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Russia “is under no threat from NATO, a defensive alliance that will not fight in Ukraine. This is another escalatory and unnecessary step that threatens us all. We urge Russia to tone down its dangerous rhetoric regarding nuclear weapons.”
A senior U.S. defense official told reporters Russia’s decision to put its nuclear deterrent on high alert was “unnecessary” and “escalatory.”
"We are confident that we have the ability to defend the homeland and defend our allies and partners, and that includes through strategic deterrence," said the official while declining to discuss the United States’ nuclear deterrent further.
Russia voted against Monday’s special session of the 193-member U.N. General Assembly but could not exercise veto power on the procedural vote. China, the United Arab Emirates and India abstained.
Explaining China’s abstention, U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun said Beijing believes the top priority now is for all parties to exercise the necessary restraint to prevent the situation from getting worse.
“Actions taken by the U.N. should help cool the situation and facilitate diplomatic solutions and restrain from aggravating tensions,” Zhang said.
The European Union is sending “fighter jets” to Ukraine to counter Russia’s military. The bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters Sunday, “We’re not talking about just ammunition. We are providing more important arms to go to a war.”
EU countries are denying access to European airspace for Russian-owned, Russian-registered or Russian-controlled aircraft and are banning state-owned Russia Today and Sputnik that “spread their lies to justify Putin’s war,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced Sunday.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy agreed to send a delegation to the Belarus border to start peace talks with Russia without preconditions.
"We agreed that the Ukrainian delegation would meet with the Russian delegation without preconditions on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, near the Pripyat River," his office said in a statement.
Earlier, Zelenskyy had said he would enter peace talks with Russia but ruled out meeting inside Belarus because Russia had used it to launch its attacks on Ukraine.
The Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, stressed that the government was ready for peace talks but not ready to surrender. Ukraine has filed a case against Russia at the U.N.’s highest court, charging that Russia used false claims of genocide in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine to justify its invasion and is now planning genocidal acts elsewhere in Ukraine.
“They’re using missiles and heavy artillery and troops around the country to essentially target the civilian infrastructure, hospitals; we now see the kindergartens. I mean, nothing is off limits to them,” Markarova told ABC.
On the Ground
Russian troops continued to battle Ukrainian defense forces and citizen soldiers for control of Kyiv, the capital, and other cities Sunday, the fourth day of Russia’s invasion.
"We have no indication that the Russian military has taken control of any city," the senior U.S. defense official told reporters Sunday, adding that Russian forces remain about 30 kilometers from the center of the Ukrainian capital.
To date, Russia has only sent in about two-thirds of the more than 150,000 Russian troops it had deployed around Ukraine, according to the official. Russian forces as of Sunday morning had launched more than 320 missiles into Ukraine, but U.S. indications showed some launches had failed.
The senior defense official said it appears that Russia both did not anticipate the level of resistance from Ukraine and did not have a lot of experience with this type of complex operation.
“We don't know whether it's a failure in planning; we don't know whether it's a failure in execution, but I think we can assume that they will learn from this and that they will adapt and that they will overcome these challenges,” the official cautioned.
Russian troops who entered Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city that sits about 40 kilometers from the Russian border, were met with heavy resistance. Early Sunday, the Ukrainian president's office reported an explosion there and said Russian forces had blown up a gas pipeline.
The senior U.S. defense official said one concerning development Sunday was around the city of Chernihiv, north of Kyiv, where it appeared that Russian forces were beginning to adopt “siege tactics,” including increased use of imprecise rocket attacks inside the city.
There are also reports of shelling in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, which has been held by Russia-backed separatists since 2014.
Several thousand Russian naval infantry have landed in southern Ukraine and are making their way northeast towards Mariupol. The U.S. is also monitoring Russian naval activity south of Odessa in the Black Sea, the senior defense official said.
Western allies are responding to Zelenskyy’s call for help. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Saturday his country will send Ukraine 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles “as quickly as possible,” and the French presidential office said France will send defensive weapons and fuel.
“The anti-war coalition is working,” Zelenskyy tweeted.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, meanwhile, has posted a notice on Twitter inviting foreign nationals to join in Ukraine's battle against Russia.
Lines of vehicles clogged Ukraine’s borders as refugees continued to leave the country. The United Nations’ refugee agency said Sunday more than 200,000 had fled, half of them to Poland, and up to 4 million could flee if the situation worsens.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov claimed Saturday that since the start of Russia’s attack, its military had hit 821 Ukrainian military facilities, 87 tanks and other targets.
At least 198 Ukrainians have been killed in the invasion, including three children, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency, which cited Ukraine’s Health Ministry. It was unclear whether the figure included only civilian deaths.
Monday’s U.N. General Assembly session is meant to further isolate Russia diplomatically. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his G-7 counterparts spoke Sunday with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. U.S. State Department Spokesman Ned Price says they discussed the “global response to Russia’s premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attack on Ukraine.”
“Together we are supporting the Ukrainian people and imposing severe costs and consequences to hold Russia accountable for its war of choice,” Price said. “We stand with Ukraine and recognize the bravery and heroism of the Ukrainian people.”
Jamie Dettmer, Heather Murdock contributed to this report.