By Carla Babb
Ukraine has agreed to hold talks with Russia at the Belarus border, as Russian President Vladimir Putin orders Russian nuclear deterrent forces on high alert.
With tensions with the West soaring over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin told the Russian defense minister to put nuclear forces in a “special regime of combat duty” Sunday. He told his officials that leading NATO powers had made “aggressive statements” and imposed hard-hitting financial sanctions against Russia.
White House press secretary Jenn Psaki told ABC News Sunday Putin was continuing his pattern of “manufacturing threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression.”
“At no point has Russia been under threat from NATO, has Russia been under threat from Ukraine,” she said.
A senior U.S. defense official told reporters Russia’s decision to put its nuclear deterrent on high alert was “unnecessary” and “escalatory.”
“We are confident that we have the ability to defend the homeland and defend our allies and partners, and that includes through strategic deterrence,” said the official while declining to discuss the United States’ nuclear deterrent further.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy agreed to send a delegation to the Belarus border to start peace talks with Russia without preconditions.
“We agreed that the Ukrainian delegation would meet with the Russian delegation without preconditions on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, near the Pripyat River,” his office said in a statement.
Earlier, Zelenskyy had said he would enter peace talks with Russia but ruled out meeting inside Belarus because Russia had used it to launch its attacks on Ukraine.
The Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, stressed that the government was ready for peace talks but not ready to surrender, adding that the Ukrainian government had filed suit against Russia at the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Ukraine.
“They’re using missiles and heavy artillery and troops around the country to essentially target the civilian infrastructure, hospitals; we now see the kindergartens. I mean, nothing is off limits to them,” Markarova told ABC.
The European Union is denying access to its airspace for Russian-owned, Russian-registered or Russian-controlled aircraft.
“They won’t be able to land in, take off or overfly the territory of the EU,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced Sunday.
The EU is also financing weapons and equipment for Ukraine while banning Russian state-owned Russia Today and Sputnik from “spread their lies to justify Putin’s war,” von der Leyen added.
Russian troops continued to battle Ukrainian defense forces and citizen soldiers for control of Kyiv, the capital, and other cities Sunday, the fourth day of Russia’s invasion.
“We have no indication that the Russian military has taken control of any city,” the senior U.S. defense official told reporters Sunday, adding that Russian forces remain about 30 kilometers from the center of the Ukrainian capital.
To date, Russia has only sent in about two-thirds of the more than 150,000 Russian troops it had deployed around Ukraine, according to the official. Russian forces as of Sunday morning had launched more than 320 missiles into Ukraine, but U.S. indications showed some launches had failed.
The senior defense official said it appears that Russia both did not anticipate the level of resistance from Ukraine and did not have a lot of experience with this type of complex operation.
“We don’t know whether it’s a failure in planning; we don’t know whether it’s a failure in execution, but I think we can assume that they will learn from this and that they will adapt and that they will overcome these challenges,” the official cautioned.
There are also reports of shelling in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, which has been held by Russia-backed separatists since 2014.
Several thousand Russian naval infantry have landed in southern Ukraine and are making their way northeast towards Mariupol. The U.S. is also monitoring Russian naval activity south of Odessa in the Black Sea, the senior defense official said.
Western allies are responding to Zelenskyy’s call for help. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Saturday his country will send Ukraine 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles “as quickly as possible,” and the French presidential office said France will send defensive weapons and fuel.
“The anti-war coalition is working,” Zelenskyy tweeted.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, meanwhile, has posted a notice on Twitter inviting foreign nationals to join in Ukraine’s battle against Russia.
Lines of vehicles clogged Ukraine’s borders as refugees continued to leave the country. The United Nations’ refugee agency said Sunday more than 200,000 had fled, half of them to Poland, and up to 4 million could flee if the situation worsens.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov claimed Saturday that since the start of Russia’s attack, its military had hit 821 Ukrainian military facilities, 87 tanks and other targets.
At least 198 Ukrainians have been killed in the invasion, including three children, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency, which cited Ukraine’s Health Ministry. It was unclear whether the figure included only civilian deaths.
Jamie Dettmer, Heather Murdock contributed to this report.