Putin puts nuclear forces on high alert; Ukrainians, Russians agree to talks – live updates – USA TODAY

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In a significant escalation of East-West tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear deterrent forces put on high alert Sunday. He said the move was a response to “aggressive statements” by leading NATO powers and economic sanctions by the West.

The directive means Putin has ordered Russia’s nuclear weapons prepared for increased readiness to launch, suggesting that tensions could boil over into a nuclear war.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Sunday that Putin’s decision indicates the Russian president is “continuing to escalate” the war in Ukraine in a way that is “unacceptable.”

At the same time, the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said a delegation would meet with Russian officials for talks, near the Belarus border. 

Thomas-Greenfield expressed hope for prospective peace talks.

“We’ll look forward to what comes out of those discussions,” she told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Putin’s move came as Russian troops entered Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv and fighting is underway in the streets, according to the Associated Press. Videos posted on Ukrainian media and social networks showed Russian vehicles moving across Kharkiv and a light vehicle burning on the street. Residents were urged to stay inside.

The troops in Kharkiv arrived after Russia unleashed a wave of attacks on Ukraine targeting airfields and fuel facilities. Two large explosions rocked an area south of the capital just before 1 a.m. local time. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said one of the blasts was near the Zhuliany airport and the other blast hit an oil depot about 25 miles south of the capital, according to the mayor of Vasylkiv via the AP. Russian forces also blew up a gas pipeline in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, according to the Ukrainian president’s office.

The United Nations says it has confirmed at least 240 civilian casualties, including at least 64 people killed in the fighting in Ukraine that erupted since Russia’s invasion on Thursday, according to the AP. Though, the UN believes the toll may be “considerably higher.” 

More than 200,000 people have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries. UN officials believe up to 4 million people could leave if fighting continues.

Meanwhile, the United States and its European allies agreed to remove “selected” Russian banks from the international SWIFT messaging system, which allows for the movement of financial transactions.

A few things to catch you up: 

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WHY IS RUSSIA INVADING UKRAINE?:  Could this be the start of WWIII? We explain.

BACK IN THE STATES:  What is the draft? And can it ever be reinstated here? 

BANNED FROM SWIFT?: How banning Russia from the world banking system could impact the country

Psaki: Putin ‘manufacturing threats’ to justify attack on Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to put nuclear deterrent forces on high alert is another example of the Russian leader “manufacturing threats” to justify aggression against Ukraine, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Sunday.

“We’ve seen him do this time and time again,” Psaki said on ABC’s “This Week.” “At no time has Russia been under threat from NATO.”

“This is all a pattern from President Putin,” Psaki said, “and we’re all going to stand up” to him.

– Michael Collins

Condoleeza Rice: Putin faces unexpected reality in Ukraine

Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said Russian President Vladimir Putin may have “bitten off more than he can chew” perhaps forcing early peace talks.

Rice, speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” said Putin likely believed that he could “waltz” into Ukraine.

“But the reality has been quite different.”

– Kevin Johnson

Romney casts the war as a battle of ‘good and evil’

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, cast Ukraine’s defense against the Russian invasion as a battle of “good and evil,” and called for more sanctions on the “evil regime” of Vladimir Putin.

Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Romney also said he hopes Putin will use potential peace talks with Ukraine as an opportunity to back off.

“He made a huge error,” Romney said of Putin. “This is not going well for him.”

– David Jackson

‘A thug and despot’: Putin to feel pain of new financial sanctions

Removing Russia from a global banking network as part of a new round of sanctions “will make a big difference” in isolating the Kremlin, said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

The U.S. and its allies Saturday cut Russia from the key financial messaging network known as SWIFT, in an escalation of its sanctioning campaign.

Klobuchar called Putin “a thug and a despot,” who misjudged the world’s reaction to Russia aggression.

– Kevin Johnson

UN ambassador looks forward to potential Russia-Ukraine talks

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, expressed hope for prospective peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.    

“We’ll look forward to what comes out of those discussions,” Thomas-Greenfield told CNN’s “State of the Union.” The ambassador spoke shortly after reports that Ukraine would send a delegation to a location near the Belarus border to talk with Russian negotiators.

U.N. ambassador says Russian leaders will be held accountable – including Putin

Thomas-Greenfield did not directly address the question of whether Putin should be tried as a war criminal – but also did not reject the idea.

“We’re holding the Russians accountable at every level,” she said on CNN.

She later added: “Everything is on the table”

– David Jackson

Zelenskyy’s office: Ukraine delegation, Russian officials to meet

The office of Ukraine’s president has confirmed that a delegation will meet with Russian officials as Moscow’s troops draw closer to Kyiv.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said on the Telegram messaging app that the two sides would meet at an unspecified location on the Belarusian border and did not give a precise time for the meeting.

The announcement on Sunday 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 than Belarus, where Russia has placed a large contingent of troops.

– Associated Press

‘Unacceptable’: Thomas-Greenfield says Putin escalating conflict in Ukraine

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Sunday that Vladimir Putin’s decision to put nuclear deterrent forces on high alert indicates the Russian president is “continuing to escalate” the war in Ukraine in a way that is “unacceptable.”

Speaking on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. is using “every possible lever” to stop Russia’s invasion of its neighbor and that the UN Security Council will meet later Sunday.

“I’m not surprised at this information because Putin has tried every means possible to actually put fear in the world in terms of his actions. It just means that we need to ramp up up our actions at the U.N.”

When asked whether there’s a threat of chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, Thomas-Greenfield responded: “Certainly nothing is off the table with this guy.”

– Sean Rossman

Putin orders nuclear deterrent forces on high alert

Russia President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces Sunday to be on high alert, a dramatic escalation of tensions with the West that brought immediate condemnation from the U.S. as Russia continues its full-scale assault on Ukraine.

Putin, announcing the move on Russian state television, called it a response to “aggressive statements” and tough financial sections from NATO countries. The extraordinary step raises the threat of nuclear warfare entering the conflict in Ukraine, a scenario the White House has previously said it has not assessed.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, condemned the action as “unacceptable” in an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Putin directed the Russian defense minister and the chief of the military’s General Staff to put the nuclear deterrent forces in a “special regime of combat duty” during a meeting with top officials.

“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 said in televised comments.

At the onset of the conflict with Ukraine, Putin warned that any nation that would “hinder us” will face” such consequences that you have never encountered in your history,” although he did not elaborate what he meant.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

— Joey Garrison, Associated Press

Kyiv eerily quite after explosions 

The capital, Kyiv, was eerily quiet after huge explosions lit up the morning sky and authorities reported blasts at one of the airports. Only an occasional car appeared on a deserted main boulevard as a strict 39-hour curfew kept people off the streets. Terrified residents instead hunkered down in homes, underground garages and subway stations in anticipation of a full-scale Russian assault.

“The past night was tough – more shelling, more bombing of residential areas and civilian infrastructure,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said. “There is not a single facility in the country that the occupiers wouldn’t consider as admissible targets.”

Videos posted on Ukrainian media and social networks showed Russian vehicles moving across Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. The images showed Russian troops roaming the city in small groups. In one image, Ukrainian troops were seen firing at the Russians and damaged Russian light utility vehicles abandoned nearby.

The images underscored the determined resistance Russian troops face while attempting to enter Ukraine’s bigger cities. Ukrainians have volunteered en masse to help defend the capital, Kyiv, and other cities, taking guns distributed by authorities and preparing firebombs to fight Russian forces.

– Associated Press

Zelenskyy asks UN top court to halt Russian invasion, says Moscow ‘manipulating the notion of genocide’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia of manipulating the notion of genocide to justify invading its neighbor and urged the International Court of Justice to hold trials.

Located in The Hague in the Netherlands, the ICJ is the main judicial arm of the United Nations.

“Russia must be held accountable for manipulating the notion of genocide to justify aggression. We request an urgent decision ordering Russia to cease military activity now and expect trials to start next week,” Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter.

The ICJ rules on disputes between states, including responsibility for breaches of international law. It is not linked to the International Criminal Court, also based in The Hague, which holds individuals accountable for atrocities.

– Caren Bohan and Associated Press

Zelenskyy is a lion of a leader | Opinion

“I need ammunition, not a ride.” Those are the words proclaimed by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In the midst of terrible death and destruction and the most egregious threat to Europe since World War II, Ukrainians are teaching the rest of the world a lesson about freedom, resolve and love of country.

When offered an escape from Kyiv, allegedly by the United States, the 44-year-old Ukrainian president immediately rejected the notion and demonstrated selfless leadership and a portrait of courage generally reserved for Hollywood.

Many leaders would have abandoned ship, putting their own personal safety above that of their countrymen. Zelenskyy, on the other hand, is taking a stand for freedom, boldly demonstrating that freedom is worth fighting for; that a government of, by and for the people is worth defending. 

— August Pfluger (Read more of August Pfluger’s column.)

NHL star Alex Ovechkin called over over stance on war

Hockey Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek has called for the NHL to “immediately suspend contracts for all Russian players” amidst Russia’s deadly invasion of Ukraine. 

The 57-year-old Czech also had some choice words for Washington Capitals’ Russian-born star Alex Ovechkin, a supporter of President Vladimir Putin.

Hasek, who played in the NHL for 16-seasons and is widely considered one of the best goaltenders of all time, called Ovechkin an “alibist,” a “liar” and a “chicken (expletive)” after Ovechkin failed to publicly denounce Putin and his country’s aggression.

— Cydney Henderson

Ukraine rejects location for talks with Russia

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says his country is ready for peace talks with Russia but not in Belarus.

Speaking in a video message Sunday, Zelenskyy suggested meeting in Warsaw, Bratislava, Istanbul, Budapest or Baku. He said other locations are also possible but made clear that Ukraine doesn’t accept Russia’s selection of Belarus, which Russia has used as a staging ground for its invasion.

The Kremlin said Sunday that a Russian delegation had arrived in the Belarusian city of Homel for talks with Ukrainian officials. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the delegation includes military officials and diplomats.

— Associated Press

Russia’s cutting off port access

Russia was working Sunday to limit strategic strategic ports along the Ukraine’s coastline stretching from the border with Romania in the west to the border with Russia in the east. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Russian forces had blocked the cities of Kherson on the Black Sea and the port of Berdyansk on the Azov Sea. 

Russia’s military also put increasing pressure on strategic ports in the south of Ukraine, blocking the cities of Kherson on the Black Sea and the port of Berdyansk on the Azov Sea.

Cutting Ukraine’s access to its sea ports would deal a major blow to the country’s economy. 

— Associated Press

Russia targets Ukraine airfields in next phase

Russia unleashed a wave of attacks on Ukraine targeting airfields and fuel facilities in what appeared to be the next phase of an invasion that has been slowed by fierce resistance. The U.S. and EU responded with weapons and ammunition for the outnumbered Ukrainians and powerful sanctions intended to further isolate Moscow.

Huge explosions lit up the sky early Sunday south of the capital, Kyiv, where people hunkered down in homes, underground garages and subway stations in anticipation of a full-scale assault by Russian forces.

— Associated Press

Where are Russian military forces? Tracking the Ukraine invasion

‘You cannot defeat a whole nation’

On Sunday morning, Ukranian writer Illarion Pavliuk plans to set out on a dangerous journey to help his countrymen as explosions rock Kyiv, and outgunned Ukrainian forces continue to maintain control of their capital.

Pavliuk is not a solider, but he does have a military background. In 2015, he was an intelligence volunteer in the war in Eastern Ukraine. And yet, this is what Ukraine has become – a country where internationally acclaimed artists are forced to kiss their children goodnight before they go off to defend their homeland from the occupying force.  “We will never give up and we are going to win this war. You cannot defeat the whole nation. And Ukrainians are absolutely united as a nation now.”

His words are haunting and powerful, with his children in the background. 

“What can I tell you about this war? It is difficult to say a couple of words,” he says. “I would never ever imagine my four children dropping their toys and running to sit in the thickest doorway in the house because of cruise missiles above our city; ballistic missiles.

“And I would never imagine this and I will never forgive Russia.” 

– Carli Pierson, USA TODAY