- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 27, 2022

Russian President Vladimir Putin, facing a wall of global opposition and unexpectedly fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces, played the nuclear card Sunday, ordering the country’s vast nuclear arsenal be put on a “special combat readiness” status to persuade the U.S. and European nations not to come to Kyiv’s aid.

The Kremlin also said it had agreed to send a delegation to the Ukraine-Belarus border for the first direct talks with the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy since the military invasion began Wednesday.

Even though Mr. Zelenskyy played down the possibility of a breakthrough, Ukrainian officials said Mr. Putin’s agreement to the meeting without preconditions was a sign that the Russian offensive was not producing the lightning victory he sought.

There was action on several fronts in the fast-moving crisis, shaping up as possibly the bloodiest conflict in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

The U.N. Security Council agreed to Ukraine’s request for an emergency meeting Monday of the full 193-nation General Assembly to discuss the crisis. Unlike in the Security Council itself, Russia’s lone vote against the meeting was not enough to block the General Assembly session.

Russia also appeared to have few allies in the public relations battle over the war. Major demonstrations broke out in capitals across Europe, more businesses and sports leagues cut ties to Russia, and the ruble continued to plunge after the Biden administration and allies in Europe and Asia approved punishing financial sanctions.

SEE ALSO: Ukraine sees win as Russia agrees on peace talks

Finland, Sweden and Greece were among the countries announcing military packages to help Ukraine defend itself.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a significant boost in German defense spending as well as a precedent-shattering shipment of offensive weaponry to Ukraine. The European Union approved its first-ever weapons shipment as a bloc to a country at war and prepared plans to close the airspace above the 27 nations entirely to Russian aircraft.

Mr. Putin, already sanctioned personally by the Biden administration, suffered another indignity Sunday when the International Judo Federation announced it was suspending Mr. Putin’s status as honorary president, citing “the ongoing war conflict in Ukraine.”

U.N. officials said more than 368,000 Ukrainian refugees had fled to Poland and other neighboring countries.

Rhetorical gambit?

U.S. and NATO officials expressed alarm at Mr. Putin’s nuclear remarks but appeared to take them more as a rhetorical gambit, albeit one that had the potential to make a dangerous situation more volatile.

SEE ALSO: Pentagon: Russia’s Ukraine push slowed by strong resistance, supply problems

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told ABC News that the Russian president was using the same playbook he employed in the buildup to war in recent months, “which is to manufacture threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg immediately denounced Mr. Putin’s remarks as “dangerous rhetoric.”

“This is a behavior which is irresponsible,” Mr. Stoltenberg told CNN. “Of course, when you combine this rhetoric with what they are doing on the ground in Ukraine — waging war against an independent, sovereign nation, conducting a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine — this adds to the seriousness of the situation.”

A senior U.S. defense official said the worst part of Mr. Putin’s move was the fresh level of uncertainty it brought to the crisis.

“We believe that this is not only an unnecessary step for him to take but an escalatory one,” the official said.

It’s “unnecessary because Russia has never been under threat by the West or NATO and certainly wasn’t under any threat by Ukraine. And escalatory because it’s clearly actually putting at play forces that, if there’s a miscalculation, could make things much, much more dangerous,” the official said.

Nuclear analysts said Mr. Putin’s vague “special mode of combat duty” for Russia’s nuclear deterrent allowed him some wiggle room as he tries to contain the fallout from a war that looks to last far longer and be more costly than Russian and many Western military analysts predicted.

Mr. Putin already has hinted at being ready to use Russia’s nuclear capability. He warned last week that any Western countries that tried to stop Moscow’s invasion would face “consequences they have never seen before.”

The move Sunday was a far more explicit version of the threat and suggested growing anger and frustration in Moscow at the strong and concerted global reaction to the invasion.

“Western countries are not only taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic sphere, but top officials from leading NATO members made aggressive statements regarding our country,” Mr. Putin said.

U.S. officials said Russian forces were facing stiff resistance from the Ukrainian military as fuel and logistics problems hampered their advance in the northern sections of the country.

A senior Pentagon official told reporters on background that the resistance is most pronounced as the Russians move toward the city of Kharkiv, but they also are facing challenges on their advance to Kyiv. The analysis largely matches that of private military specialists, who say Russian forces have encountered far more obstacles than they likely anticipated.

Russian forces remained about 20 miles outside Kyiv’s city center, roughly the same position they were 24 hours earlier.

“We still, as of this morning, have no indication that the Russian military has taken control of any cities, but clearly, that continues to be in our view their goal,” the Defense Department official said.

Ukrainian officials said some 3,000 Russian troops already had been killed in the fight, a total that could not be verified independently. They posted videos showing a wrecked Russian armored convoy and downed Russian aircraft.

Russia has not issued an official toll of its losses in the conflict.

Although it is clear the Russians are frustrated by the logistical challenges, the Pentagon thinks they will eventually learn and overcome them.

Russia has a major manpower and firepower advantage over its smaller neighbor.

Private satellite imagery late Sunday showed what appeared to be a large deployment of Russian tanks and troops on the road to Kyiv from approximately 40 miles away, a line of military assets that stretched out more than 3 miles.

Ukraine’s command-and-control structures appear to have survived the initial onslaught remarkably well. Ukraine has not yielded control of the airspace to the invading Russian forces and continues to field a viable and credible air force and missile defense force in operation, although both have been degraded since the start of the war, officials said.

Russian forces on Sunday were about 30 miles from the city center of Mariupol, located on the Sea of Azov in the southeast of Ukraine. Intelligence also indicates the Kremlin may be setting the stage for a siege of Chernihiv, about 80 miles northeast of Kyiv on the border with Belarus, Pentagon officials said.

“This is combat, and combat is ugly. It’s messy, it’s bloody and it’s not wholly predictable,” the Defense Department official said.

Talks set for Monday

Amid the nuclear brinkmanship came the first hint of a possible diplomatic off-ramp to the war.

Moscow and Kyiv announced separately that they would send lower-level delegations to emergency talks on ways to resolve their five-day war. Ukrainian officials said the Kremlin’s agreement to talk is a sign things aren’t going as planned for Mr. Putin.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said just agreeing to talks without preconditions was a concession for the Kremlin, which is far short of Mr. Putin’s stated goals for launching a full-scale invasion last week.

“As long as Russia continues to suffer, as long as the Russian army experiences one defeat after the other, Russia’s conditions and ultimatums [have] abated. Now they give us a signal that they just want to talk,” the minister said, according to the Ukrainian news website Ukrinform.

Ukraine’s presidential office said the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko indicated that all Belarusian forces would stand down while the Ukrainian delegation travels there for talks.

Belarus was a major staging ground for Russian troops before the invasion. Mr. Lukashenko, a longtime Putin ally, is one of the few world leaders who have not condemned the Russian incursion.

Mr. Zelenskyy said in a video Sunday that he was willing to hold talks with Russia but was not optimistic they would lead to a quick breakthrough.

“I do not really believe in the outcome of this meeting, but let them try so that later not a single citizen of Ukraine has any doubt that I, as president, tried to stop the war, when there was even a small, but still a chance,” Mr. Zelenskyy said.

The Kremlin’s chief spokesman said Ukrainian officials had suggested the locale for the meeting but Russia’s military campaign would proceed despite the talks.

“For our part, we have warned the Ukrainian side that this time the actions suggested by the military operation will not be suspended,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Tass news service.

•This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Mike Glenn can be reached at mglenn@washingtontimes.com.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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