Ukrainian crisis | 

Ukraine fighters repel Russians from Kharkiv as Putin puts nuclear deterrent forces on alert

Mr Putin blamed the West’s “unfriendly steps” when ordering Russia’s military command to put its nuclear deterrent “into a special mode of combat service”

Fighting has continued in Mykolaivka, Donetsk region, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, in eastern Ukraine (AP)

Ukrainian service members at a checkpoint in the city of Zhytomyr, Ukraine. Picture: Reuters

Russian president Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters/Aleksey Nikolskyi

A serviceman of pro-Russian militia is seen inside a tank of armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic (LNR) on a road in the Luhansk region, Ukraine February 27, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko

A child in a wheelchair who fled the conflict from neighbouring Ukraine waits for transport at the Romanian-Ukrainian border, in Siret, Romania. Picture: AP


Vladimir Putin yesterday put Russia’s nuclear arsenal on standby amid growing fears he could deploy weapons of mass destruction to avoid the humiliation of defeat in Ukraine.

Mr Putin blamed the West’s “unfriendly steps” when ordering Russia’s military command to put its nuclear deterrent “into a special mode of combat service”.

After four days of fighting, Russia’s advance has become bogged down and troops repelled after fierce fighting in the capital Kyiv and in Kharkiv, its second city.

Military analysts claimed Russian forces had suffered their “worst day” while Kharkiv’s governor said his city had been “cleansed of the enemy”.

Russia admitted for the first time yesterday it had suffered casualties but insisted Ukraine’s claims of 4,300 soldiers killed was inaccurate.

In an increasingly aggressive Western reaction to the war, the European Union took the unprecedented step of agreeing to supply Ukraine with weapons while ratcheting up sanctions by banning all Russian airline flights from EU airspace, effectively cutting off travel to the West.

In a televised address, broadcast from the Kremlin, Mr Putin said: “I order the defence minister and the chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces to put the deterrence forces of the Russian army into a special mode of combat service.

“You see that Western countries are not only unfriendly to our country in the economic sphere – I mean illegitimate sanctions. Senior officials of leading Nato countries also allow aggressive statements against our country.”

Russian troops were repelled from Kharkiv yesterday after entering the city just after dawn in the latest blow to Mr Putin’s plan for a rapid victory.

There were reports of tanks and armoured vehicles running out of fuel and being left abandoned at the roadside and soldiers looting supermarkets to feed themselves after a break in supply lines.

Drone footage posted online showed at least two Russian convoys hit in air strikes as the Kremlin’s forces failed to establish air superiority, critical to any successful invasion.

However, last night a three-mile long convoy of armoured vehicles, tanks and troops was spotted by satellite moving towards Kyiv. The mayor, Vitali Klitschko, said residents could no longer be evacuated amid fears the city is now surrounded.

Senior US defence officials yesterday warned Russian forces could be shifting to siege warfare, “increasing the likelihood of collateral damage to civilian life”, after their failure to topple the government.

One of Mr Putin’s closest allies – the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov – criticised Russian tactics as “too slow”, demanding his feared fighters be let loose to “finish off the Nazis and terrorists”.

The EU foreign policy chief said Russia had clearly threatened a nuclear attack on countries supporting Ukraine after the invasion.

“Just to mention the possibility of using nuclear weapons – it’s such a gigantic irresponsibility that says a lot about the personality of (the person) who is doing that,” Josep Borrell told a news conference in Brussels .

“We are afraid that Russia is not going to stop in Ukraine.”

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the UN Security Council: “This is another escalatory and unnecessary step that threatens us all.

“We urge Russia to tone down this dangerous rhetoric regarding nuclear weapons.”

taoiseach Micheál Martin warned yesterday that Ireland is ruling nothing out in terms of economic, travel and diplomatic sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

But the Taoiseach – speaking in Cork – stressed that Ireland will only act in close consort with the European Union and United Nations to exert maximum pressure on Moscow to comply with international law and respect Ukrainian territory.

Mr Martin said Ireland wanted to show solidarity with the Ukrainian government and people as they battled bravely to defend their independence.

“I believe that the financial sanctions and the various other sanctions that we have announced collectively do represent an unprecedented response to an unjustifiable war.

“I think it is shocking what we are witnessing on our television screens. People are finding it very difficult to comprehend that in this day and age such atrocities can occur.”

His comments came as major demonstrations were staged in Dublin, Cork and Galway in support of the embattled Ukrainian people.

National collections of clothing, foodstuffs and medical supplies are also under way.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday said Mr Putin’s nuclear threat was a “distraction from what’s really going on in Ukraine” as resistance forces put up more of a fight than the Kremlin was expecting.

A senior military source warned of the risks of widening the conflict.

“Putin’s strategy is escalation and hence the announcement on nuclear weapons,” the source said. “The West needs to avoid being too breathless and too optimistic about the outcome of this war. The first round has gone to Ukraine but there are many more.”

With Russia failing to make gains in Ukraine, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss spoke of her fears that Mr Putin could order the use of “the most unsavoury” weapons. She said: “This could well be the beginning of the end for Putin. I fear that he is prepared to use the most unsavoury means in this war.”

She did not rule out his deployment of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, adding: “I fear this conflict could be very, very bloody. 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 hugely devastating.”

Yesterday, the UK Foreign Secretary gave official backing to the call of Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky for foreign fighters to travel to Ukraine as part of an international resistance force.

In a glimmer of hope of an early settlement to hostilities, Mr Zelensky announced he had agreed to talks with a Russian delegation on the Ukraine-Belarus border. 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.

It was not clear when they would start. “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,” Mr Zelenskiy said.

Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Mr Putin of ordering the nuclear deterrent on high alert to put pressure on Kyiv at the start of the talks but that his government would not be cowed.

The EU’s decision to supply weapons to Ukraine will bolster its government.

The EU also announced fresh sanctions against Russia and its “collaborator” Belarus and vowed to ban RT and Sputnik, Russia’s media outlets, from broadcasting. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said military aid might include fighter-jets.

“This is a watershed moment,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission.

Protests across Russia continued with a further 900 people arrested, bringing the total detained to more than 4,000.

The UN said almost 370,000 refugees had fled Ukraine into bordering countries, risking a humanitarian crisis.

The British oil company BP announced it would give up its 19.75pc stake in Russian oil giant Rosneft, writing off up to $25bn (€22bn).

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