Putin puts Russian nuclear forces on alert as Ukrainian civilian deaths mount

KHARKIV, Ukraine - An increasingly isolated Russia on Sunday put its nuclear forces on alert as government leaders around the world pledged economic measures to further punish the Kremlin for its brutal invasion and tactical weapons to arm the Ukrainian resistance.

Here, in Ukraine’s second largest city, soldiers wielding rifles and rocket launchers beat back a powerful Russian invasion force during a fourth day of heavy fighting. But an onslaught of Russian tanks and assault vehicles captured on video storming toward the capital, Kyiv, has triggered fears of further bloodshed.

Although talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials were in the works, the intense combat and the massive evacuation of hundreds of thousands of civilians served as a foreboding reminder that both sides faced a drawn-out conflict.

Ukrainian officials have charged that Russian soldiers have indiscriminately fired on ambulances, kindergartens and residential neighborhoods. At least 353 civilians have been killed in the four days since the invasion began, Ukrainian officials said Sunday. An additional 1,684 civilians have been wounded, including 116 children.

Just as unnerving for the United States and its allies was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he had moved his nuclear deterrent forces into alert, heightening worries of nuclear superpowers forced back into brinkmanship.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the move “means that President Putin is continuing to escalate this war in a manner that is totally unacceptable, and we have to continue to condemn his actions in the strongest possible way.”

Putin’s action came as Russia faced an increasingly devastating package of sanctions from the United States and European allies designed to block the Kremlin from its vast currency reserves in the West and sever key Russian banks from SWIFT, a messaging network critical to the global economy.


More than 400,000 people have fled in just the four days since the war began, said Matt Saltmarsh, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency. Many have endured freezing nights and grueling waits in a chaotic scramble to cross the border. Amid fears of a humanitarian crisis, World Health Organization officials also warned that hospitals across Ukraine were quickly using up their supplies of medical oxygen, putting thousands of lives at risk.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Sunday that Russia had ambushed cities and slaughtered civilians in a campaign bordering on “genocide.” He said the country was collecting evidence to refer to an international tribunal that could investigate war crimes.

“They are fighting against everything alive,” Zelensky said. “They kill our children, destroy our homes, try to blow up everything that was built over decades.”

Also foreboding was word from U.S. officials that Belarus, whose president is a close ally of Putin, is preparing to send soldiers into Ukraine as soon as Monday, in support of the Russian invasion.

Zelensky’s emotional appeals for help from E.U. leaders, some told The Washington Post, had spurred them toward more aggressive measures to strangle Russia’s economic power and crack down on its oligarchs. The sanctions have helped send the ruble plunging to a record low, and markets are bracing for additional sell-offs and economic pain on Monday as a result of the latest moves.

Private industry has also joined in the efforts to increasingly cut off Russia. The British oil giant BP said it would offload its nearly 20% stake in the state-owned oil giant Rosneft and that its two directors would step down from the board as a result of Russia’s “act of aggression” - a $14 billion end to one of the country’s biggest-ever investments from Western industry.

The E.U. said it would impose flight bans that would block Russian airlines from virtually all of the continent’s airspace. European skies are open “for those who connect people, not for those who seek to brutally aggress,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo tweeted.

Russia retaliated by banning flights from “unfriendly” countries. The U.S. Embassy in Russia said Sunday that U.S. nationals should leave the country “immediately.”

What remains uncertain is when and whether talks between the two sides will take place, even as the prospect of any cease-fire seems unlikely. Ukraine said Sunday it would send a delegation to its border with Belarus to talk with their Russian counterparts about ending the attacks, the first diplomatic meeting between the two warring countries.

An earlier meeting had been ruled out because of security concerns, but Zelensky’s office said on the messaging app Telegram Sunday that the meeting would be held “without preconditions.” No timing has been announced, and the Kremlin has said military actions will continue.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya, said of the talks: “We will be happy if the result of the negotiations is peace and the end of war. But we will not give up, we will not capitulate, we will not give an inch of our territory.”

The Russian military acknowledged Sunday for the first time that it had lost troops in the fighting, with Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov saying an unspecified number “of our comrades have been killed or injured.”

The Kremlin has for days sought to play down the national invasion as only a “special military operation” in east Ukraine. The losses, Konashenkov said, were “many times” fewer than those of Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has claimed to have killed more than 3,000 Russian troops.

E.U. leaders vowed to boost the purchase of weapons for Ukraine, reflecting the bloc’s shifting perspective on emboldening defense. Authorities in Belgium, Denmark and Sweden said they would send thousands of antitank weapons, helmets, machine guns and body shields to Ukraine. Italy said it would send 110 million euros, and the United Kingdom committed more than $50 million in humanitarian aid.

The war has also abruptly ended decades of minimal military spending in Germany, where Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the nation would spend more than $110 billion in the next year toward defense, a stunning reversal after decades of hesitation toward expanding its military since the dark days of World War II. Military officials there warned last week that they were “more or less powerless” in an armed conflict.

Antiwar protesters braved police beatings in street marches across Russia on Sunday, leading to thousands of arrests in Moscow and other cities. Around the world, massive crowds formed especially in Berlin, where more than 100,000 protesters marched on Sunday, chanting anti-Putin slogans and carrying the Ukrainian flag.

In the United States, demonstrations sprang up over the weekend in Atlanta, Boston, New York and other cities. At a protest in D.C., rallygoers said Ukraine’s success was “crucial to democracy’s future.”


In Ukraine, Russia’s attempts to quickly force the elected government into submission were met with strong resistance, fueling hopes that a defense force was successfully rebuffing an advance marked by days of shelling and street assaults. Russian armored vehicles drove within a few miles of downtown Kharkiv, home to 1.5 million people. But by Sunday afternoon, the sounds of bombardment had faded, and Gov. Oleg Synyehubov reported that the city remained under Ukrainian control.

Synyehubov has told residents on his Telegram channel to “stay at home and hide during the complete destruction of the Russian enemy in the city.” Videos from the city, which is 300 miles east of Kyiv, depicted Ukrainian soldiers firing rocket-propelled grenades from shoulder-mounted launchers near a line of abandoned Russian vehicles.

Russian forces have nevertheless marked some early victories. Kupyansk, a city of 28,000 in northeast Ukraine, surrendered to Russian control after threats of military bombardment, its mayor, Gennady Matsegora, said in a video message on the city council’s Facebook page. He said he’d been assured by the Russians that schools and hospitals would remain open, adding, “We must come together and get back to normal life.”

The Ukrainian capital of Kyiv has been bombarded for days by missile fire. Though satellite images have showed miles-long convoys of Russian troops barreling toward the city, it remains under Ukrainian control.

Days of intense fighting have worsened the fog of war and made it challenging to follow the invasion’s progress from afar. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko told the Associated Press on Sunday that the Ukrainian capital was “encircled” by Russian forces, blocking all routes for civilian escape, but his spokesperson later said he had misspoken and that the city was not under siege.

Despite Ukraine’s losses, Russia’s advance has nevertheless been blunted by tactical embarrassments. Russian troops have been stranded on roadsides when their vehicles ran out of fuel, and small regiments deployed deep into Ukraine have been quickly surrounded, captured or killed.

Senior U.S. defense officials said the Russians have yet to take control of any meaningful chunk of territory or secure air superiority over the country, despite having the second-largest air force in the world.

A top E.U. official, Ylva Johansson, told member nations that they should “prepare for millions” of Ukrainian citizens seeking havens and said they “should be welcomed.” The E.U. said it will ask member countries to take in Ukrainian refugees for up to three years.


But long lines at border crossings have already fueled frustrations over who might face delays while attempting to leave, and social media posts about African, Indian and other non-Ukrainian nationals being denied entry to neighboring countries fueled concerns of potential discrimination at the border. “There is a lot of chaos at the border areas,” said Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria’s minister of foreign affairs, who said he had heard of some people who had waited three days to cross into Poland.

In the United States, lawmakers on Sunday pushed for stronger measures to combat Russian aggression. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, called Putin a “small, evil, feral-eyed man” who he hoped was “wising up to the stupidity of what he’s doing.” “This is one of the greatest demonstrations of good versus evil that we’ve seen during our lifetimes,” he said in an interview on CNN on Sunday.

Romney, a longtime Russia hawk, also called out former president Donald Trump and other members of his own party for what he said were “nearly treasonous” comments in support of Putin.

“How anybody in this country, which loves freedom, can side with . . . an oppressor, a dictator - he kills people, he imprisons his political opponents, he has been an adversary of America every chance he’s had - is unthinkable to me,” Romney said.

The Washington Post’s Siobhán O’Grady and Sudarsan Raghavan in Kyiv, Ukraine; David L. Stern in Lviv, Ukraine; Rick Noack in Paris; Chico Harlan in Rome; Jennifer Hassan and Annabelle Timsit in London; Danielle Paquette in Dakar, Senegal; and Karoun Demirjian, Paulina Firozi, Hannah Knowles, Missy Ryan, Elyse Samuels, Paul Sonne, Jeff Stein and Amy B Wang in Washington contributed to this report.