CONCLUSION 17-Putin puts nuclear deterrence on alert; The West squeezes the Russian economy
(Adds further ruble drops, EU Director General on Ukraine’s future membership, ECB on Sberbank units)
* US says nuclear alert ‘totally unacceptable’
* Putin blames NATO members for ‘aggressive’ statements
* Russian-Ukrainian talks looming on Belarusian border
* Over 360,000 refugees have fled Ukraine, UN says
* BP drops Rosneft stake, writing off $25 billion
By Maria Tsvetkova
KYIV/MOSCOW, Feb 27 (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin put Russia’s nuclear deterrent on high alert on Sunday amid a barrage of Western retaliation for its war on Ukraine, which said it had pushed back Russian ground forces attacking its largest cities.
The US says Putin is escalating the war with ‘dangerous rhetoric’, amid signs that the biggest assault on a European state since World War II is not producing quick wins, but rather generating a Western response wide-ranging and concerted.
Less than four days after its start, the invasion triggered a Western political, strategic, economic and trade response unprecedented in scale and coordination.
“With this war on Ukraine, the world will never be the same again,” EU foreign policy chief Josef Borrell wrote in an opinion piece in The Guardian newspaper.
“Now is the time more than ever for societies and alliances to come together to build our future on trust, justice and freedom. Now is the time to stand up and speak out. right. Never. I will never do that,” he said.
The European Union of 27 decided on Sunday for the first time in its history to supply arms to a country at war. A source told Reuters it would send 450 million euros ($507 million) worth of weapons to Ukraine. At a press conference, Borrell said EU support would include the supply of fighter jets.
European Union Director General Ursula von der Leyen voiced support for Ukraine’s membership in an interview with Euronews, saying “they are one of us”. Ukraine, a democratic nation of 44 million people, gained independence from Moscow in 1991 upon the fall of the Soviet Union and pushed to join the Western military alliance of NATO and the EU, goals which Russia vehemently opposes.
The ruble plunged nearly 30% to an all-time low against the dollar early Monday after Western countries unveiled tough sanctions on Saturday, including blocking some banks from the international payment system SWIFT. On Sunday, the president of neutral Switzerland said he expected his government to follow the EU with sanctions against Russia and the freezing of Russian assets.
The Ukrainian president’s office said negotiations with Moscow without preconditions would be held on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. Later Sunday, Russian news agency Tass quoted an unidentified source as saying the talks would begin Monday morning.
As the missiles fell on Ukrainian cities, nearly 400,000 civilians, mostly women and children, fled to neighboring countries, a UN relief agency said. Hundreds of people were stranded in kyiv on Sunday waiting for trains to take them west, away from the fighting.
The capital remained in Ukrainian government hands, with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy rallying his people on a daily basis despite Russian bombardment of civilian infrastructure.
The EU has closed all Russian planes out of its airspace, as has Canada, forcing Russian airline Aeroflot to cancel all flights to European destinations until further notice. With flight options dwindling, the United States and France have urged their citizens to consider leaving Russia immediately.
The EU has also banned Russian media RT and Sputnik.
Germany, which had already frozen an undersea gas pipeline project from Russia, said it would massively increase defense spending, ending decades of reluctance to match its economic might with its military clout.
British oil giant BP BP, the biggest foreign investor in Russia, said it was dumping its stake in state oil company Rosneft at a cost of up to $25 billion, halving its oil and gas reserves. gas.
Several European subsidiaries of Sberbank Russia, majority-owned by the Russian government, were bankrupt or were likely to do so due to the reputational cost of the war in Ukraine, said the European Central Bank, the supervisor of lenders.
“NO DETERRENCE BUT THREAT”
At least 352 civilians, including 14 children, were killed and 1,684 people were injured, Ukraine’s health ministry said.
Putin, who called the invasion a ‘special operation’, brought an alarming new element into play when he ordered Russian ‘deterrence forces’ – which wield nuclear weapons – to go on high alert maximum.
He justified the invasion by saying that “neo-Nazis” rule Ukraine and threaten Russia’s security – a charge that kyiv and Western governments say is baseless propaganda.
On Sunday, he cited aggressive statements by NATO leaders and the series of economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the West.
“Not only are the Western countries taking hostile measures against our country in the economic dimension – I mean the illegal sanctions that everyone is very familiar with – but also the senior officials of the main NATO countries allow themselves to make statements aggressive towards our country,” he told state television.
Putin previously referenced his nuclear arsenal in a speech announcing the start of the invasion on Thursday, saying Russia’s response to any country that stands in its way would be immediate and bring “consequences you never have. encountered in your story”.
The EU’s Borrell said Russia had clearly threatened a nuclear attack on countries supporting Ukraine after the invasion. “We are afraid that Russia will not stop in Ukraine,” he said.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the UN Security Council urged “Russia to moderate this dangerous rhetoric regarding nuclear weapons”.
A US defense official said Washington was trying to assess what Putin’s announcement meant, but that increased the danger of miscalculation.
Moscow acknowledged that Russian soldiers had been killed and wounded, but said its losses were much lower than those suffered by Ukraine, the Interfax news agency reported. Moscow has not released casualty figures.
In New York, the UN Security Council called a rare emergency meeting of the UN General Assembly, or all 193 UN member states, for Monday.
Continued protests have taken place around the world against the invasion, including in Russia, where nearly 6,000 people have been arrested in anti-war demonstrations since Thursday, protests monitor OVD-Info said.
Tens of thousands of people across Europe demonstrated in protest, including more than 100,000 in Berlin.
BATTLE FOR KHARKIV
An official Ukrainian news agency said Russian troops blew up a gas pipeline in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, sending a burning cloud into the sky.
Shortly after, Russian armor entered Kharkiv in northwestern Ukraine, and witnesses reported gunfire and explosions. But city authorities said the attack had been repelled.
Reuters was unable to corroborate the information.
Ukrainian forces also appeared to be holding back Russian troops advancing on kyiv, but the Ukrainian Armed Forces described Sunday as “a difficult time”, saying Russian troops “continue to shell from almost all directions”.
Satellite images released by the private Maxar Technologies taken on Sunday showed a 5 km (3.25 miles) convoy of Russian ground forces, including tanks, about 40 miles (64 km) towards kyiv. Reuters could not independently verify the images.
“We resisted and successfully repelled enemy attacks. The fighting continues,” Zelenskiy said in the latest of several video messages from the streets of kyiv.
(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Aleksandar Vasovic in Kyiv; Natalia Zinets and Matthias Williams in Lviv; Alan Charlish in Medyka, Poland; Fedja Grulovic in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania; and other Reuters bureaus, including Moscow; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel , Angus MacSwan, Kevin Liffey and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by David Clarke and Grant McCool)