Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday ordered his country’s nuclear weapons to be prepared for heightened readiness to launch because of what he described as “aggressive statements” by Western adversaries. 

Putin’s order to put Russia’s nuclear weapons on what was described as high alert has raised the possibility that the Russia-Ukraine war could escalate to a nuclear war.

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

“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 remarks.

ukraine map
The measure came as street fighting broke out in Ukraine’s second-largest city.
A pro-Russian rebel walks next to a destroyed T-72 tank on February 7, 2015 in the eastern Ukrainian town of Vuglegirsk in the Donetsk region
The instruction raises the possibility the Russia-Ukraine war could escalate to a nuclear war.
Burning truck
A Ukrainian soldier reacts to burned military truck.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declared the measure part of a broad pattern of Putin escalating conflicts based on “manufactured threats.”  

“This is really a pattern that we’ve seen from President Putin through the course of this conflict, which is manufacturing threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression, and the global community and the American people should look at it through that prism,” Psaki said on ABC’s “This week.

 “This is all a pattern from President Putin, and we’re going to stand up for it, we have the ability to defend ourselves, but we also need to call out what we’re seeing here from President Putin,” Psaki said.

But Putin’s ally, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, warned Sunday that the West’s sanctions against Russia are leading to a potential third world war.

“A great deal is being said about the banking sector. Gas, oil, SWIFT,” Lukashenko said, referring to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, which helps money institutions send money to each other, according to the Russian news agency TASS.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall before a meeting with members of the Security Council.
An Ukrainian serviceman walks past an Ukrainian flag hanging on the wall of a destroyed building in Luganske village, Donetsk region, on February 20, 2015.
A convoy of Russian vehicles also made a push into the city of Sumy.
Ukrainian solider
A Ukrainian soldier walks past debris of a burning military truck, on a street in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022.

“It’s worse than war. Russia is being pushed towards a third world war. We should be very reserved and steer clear of it. Because nuclear war is the end of everything,” Lukashenko said.

Russia’s startling move came as street fighting broke out in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, as part of advances that appeared to be a part of a new phase of Russia’s invasion of its western neighbor. 

Until Sunday, Russian forces had stayed on the periphery of Kharkiv, a city with a population of about 1.4 million. Russian vehicles drove across Kharkiv and Russian troops roaming the city in small groups, videos posted on Ukrainian media and social networks showed. One video showed Ukrainian troops firing at the Russians and damaged Russian utility vehicles abandoned nearby.

It also came after the battle for Kyiv continued as the sun rose in Ukraine on Sunday morning. 

Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, withstood attacks for its fourth night without succumbing to defeat, as Russian forces continued their siege on the city. 

Firefighters work by a damaged apartment building in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Pro-Russian separatists sit atop a tank near another destroyed one on a road in the village of Novokaterinovka, some 50 km southeast of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on September 4, 2014.
Kyiv withstood attacks for its fourth night without succumbing to defeat.

Overnight, there was a series of large explosions and authorities reported blasts at one of the airports. Residents attempted to take cover, hunkering down in homes, underground garages and subway stations in anticipation of dangerous assaults by Russian forces. 

A convoy of Russian vehicles also made a push into the smaller city of Sumy on Sunday morning, where an air-raid warning went off, officials said. 

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

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends an extended meeting of the Russian Interior Ministry Board on performance of Russian law enforcement agencies in 2021.
Putin directed to put the nuclear deterrent forces in a “special regime of combat duty.”

Zelensky described Russia’s attacks as “state terrorism,” saying the aggresion on Ukrainian cities should be investigated by an international war crimes tribunal and cost Russia its place as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

“Russia has taken the path of evil, and the world should come to deprive it of its U.N. Security Council seat,” he said.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss on Sunday warned that Putin could use “the most unsavory means,” including banned chemical or biological weapons, against Ukraine.

“I urge the Russians not to escalate this conflict, but we do need to be prepared for Russia to seek to use even worse weapons,” Truss said on Sky News. 

A convoy of Russian vehicles also made a push into the smaller city of Sumy Sunday morning, where an air raid warning was also declared, officials said.