- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 27, 2022

President Vladimir Putin put Russia‘s massive nuclear arsenal on higher alert Sunday, citing what he said were military and economic moves by the U.S. and its allies in response to Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine.

It was the latest Kremlin escalation of the crisis, although it was not clear from Mr. Putin‘s televised remarks to senior military leaders if the order meant Russian nuclear weapons were being raised to a ready-to-fire status.

“Senior officials of the leading NATO countries also allow aggressive statements against our country, therefore I order the minister of Defense and the chief of the general staff [of the Russian armed forces] to transfer the deterrence forces of the Russian army to a special mode of combat duty,” Mr. Putin said.

“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,” Mr. Putin told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and armed forces Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov in a briefing broadcast on state television.

Mr. Putin has hinted as being ready to use Russia‘s nuclear capability already in the crisis, warning any Western countries last week that tried to intervene in Moscow’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine that they would face “consequences they have never seen before.” But Sunday’s move was a far more explicit version of the threat and suggested growing anger in Moscow at the strong and concerted global reaction to the invasion.

“I am referring to the illegitimate sanctions, which are very well-known to everybody,” Mr. Putin said.

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

“This is a behavior which is irresponsible,” Mr. Stoltenberg told CNN. “And 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 full-fledged invasion of Ukraine —  this adds to the seriousness of the situation.”

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, speaking on NBC’s “Face the Nation” added “President Putin is continuing to escalate this war in a manner that is totally unacceptable.”

Nuclear analysts said Mr. Putin‘s “special mode of combat duty” allowed him some wiggle room as he tries to deal with the fallout of a five-day invasion of Ukraine that looks to last far longer and be more costly than Russian and many Western military analysts had predicted.

Russia and the United States typically have the land- and submarine-based segments of their strategic nuclear forces on alert and prepared for combat at all times, the Associated Press reported, but nuclear-capable bombers and other aircraft are not.

“It is an action that makes the command and control able to react if necessary,” Pavel Podvig, a Geneva-based analyst and head of the Russian Nuclear Forces project, told the Guardian newspaper. “But it’s a pretty high level.”

Pentagon officials slammed the move and said it increases the chances of a catastrophic miscalculation in the region.

“We believe that this is not only an unnecessary step for him to take but an escalatory one, 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,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Sunday morning.

Officials would not discuss whether the U.S. is adjusting its nuclear posture in Europe in response to Mr. Putin‘s order. 

Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.

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

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