Vladimir Putin has put Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent forces on high alert, dramatically ratcheting up the tensions in his stand-off with the West over his invasion of Ukraine.
The United States immediately denounced the latest escalation by the Russian president as “completely unacceptable”.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss had earlier warned any use by Russia of its tactical battlefield nuclear weapons against Ukrainian forces would represent an “extremely serious escalation” of the conflict.
Russian television footage showed Mr Putin meeting with his defense minister and the chief of the general staff, and instructing them to put the nuclear deterrent on a “special regime of combat duty”.
He cited “aggressive statements” coming from Western powers and hard-hitting economic sanctions, which include the exclusion of Russian banks from the Swift global payments system, as reasons for the action.
“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,” he said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki accused Mr Putin of resorting to the tactics he used running up to invasion, “which is to manufacture threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression”.
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg also condemned the move, saying: “This is dangerous rhetoric.
“This is a behavior which is irresponsible.”
Dr Patricia Lewis, director international security program at the Chatham House, international affairs think tank said Mr Putin was testing the West.
“This not ‘deterrence’ on Putin’s part, this is a threat.
“Russian officials have long thought that Nato countries are so frightened by Russian nuclear forces that they would never do anything to counter Russia.
“Now he’s testing that out.
The moves came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced he had agreed to talks “without preconditions” with a Russian delegation on the Ukraine-Belarus border, although he held out little hope of serious progress.
The Ukrainian leader had earlier rejected an offer of talks in Belarus, saying the Russian ally had been a launchpad for the invasion of his country.
Meanwhile the European Union announced a fresh round of sanctions banning Russian aircraft from the EU airspace and barring the Kremlin-backed media, RT and Sputnik.
In a round of Sunday morning broadcast interviews, Ms Truss said Mr Putin may be prepared to resort to “the most unsavory means” to suppress Ukraine.
Her warning came after the Commons Defense Committee chairman Tobias Ellwood said that in the “worst-case scenario” Mr Putin could deploy low yield tactical nuclear weapons if his forces failed to make a breakthrough.
With the Russian advance on the capital, Kyiv, apparently bogged down in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance, Ms Truss said the survival of Mr Putin’s regime could now be at stake if his invasion plan failed.
“This could well be the beginning of the end for Putin.
“I fear that he is prepared to use the most unsavory means in this war,” she told Sky News’s Trevor Phillips On Sunday programme.
Asked about Russia’s arsenal of chemical and tactical nuclear weapons, she said: “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. I think it would be enormously devastating.
“We need to avoid this at all costs.”
Speaking later on the BBC’s Sunday morning programme, she said that senior Russian officials could be tried for war crimes “if they do go into that arena”.
“This would be an extremely serious escalation of the situation,” she said.
“The International Criminal Court has already said they are looking at what is happening in Ukraine and if I was a senior Russian official, or indeed the president, I would be very wary of taking further steps.”
Western officials have previously raised the prospect that the Russians could use thermobaric “vacuum bombs” which suck in oxygen to create a devastating, high temperature blast.
Following the co-ordinated announcement by the UK, US, EU and Canada late on Saturday that some Russian banks would be excluded from the Swift global payments system, Ms Truss said it was vital to maintain pressure on Moscow with more economic sanctions.
She said the Government would bring forward its planned Economic Crime Bill this week and was drawing up a “hit list” of Russian oligarchs who would be targeted with travel bans and asset freezes in the coming weeks.
“Every few weeks we will sanction new oligarchs,” the Foreign Secretary told Sky News.
“We will be targeting oligarchs’ private jets, we will be targeting their properties, we will be targeting other possessions that they have and there will be nowhere to hide.”
Ms Truss acknowledged there would be an “economic cost” to pay but said it was essential that Mr Putin was stopped to avert future wars in Europe.
“If we don’t stop Putin in Ukraine we are going to see others under threat, the Baltics, Poland, Moldova, and it could end up in a conflict with Nato,” she said.
“Yes, there will be an economic cost here in Britain, there will be a cost in terms of access to oil and gas markets.
“I firmly believe that the British public understand the price we will pay if we don’t stand up to Putin now.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.