Vladimir Putin put his nuclear forces on high alert, stoking tensions with the west, as Ukrainian officials vowed they would not give up “one inch of our territory’’ in the first diplomatic talks with Russia since Moscow launched its invasion last Thursday.
After days of fighting in which Ukrainian forces held the Russian soldiers at bay outside the capital Kyiv and pushed them back from the second largest city, Kharkiv, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky warned his country faced a crucial 24 hours.
There were signs Russia was preparing a major offensive, with satellite images showing a 5km convoy of mechanised Russian forces, including tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery and support vehicles, about 65km from the capital.
As his invasion force’s progress slowed, the Russian President ordered his military to put the country’s nuclear-deterrence forces on high alert in response to what he said were aggressive statements by NATO countries, and the West’s hard-hitting economic sanctions.
The US denounced Mr Putin’s escalation as “completely unacceptable” while NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called it “dangerous”.
Adding to the tensions, Russian ally Belarus voted to overturn its non-nuclear status, and there were reports the country was preparing to join the war on Russia’s side.
But Beijing on Monday called for de-escalation and restraint as Russia and Ukraine prepared for the diplomatic talks.
Mr Putin’s threat came after the west’s tough economic sanctions levelled against the Russian economy forced its central bank to more than double official interest rates from 9.5 per cent to 20 per cent overnight.
Residents of Kyiv and Kharkiv woke to fresh explosions on the fifth day of fighting, as the country’s army and civilian fighters maintained control of key cities.
Ukraine’s government reported civilian casualties had reached more than 352, including 14 children, since the Russian invasion began, while a reported 400,000 Ukrainians had fled to neighbouring countries in search of safety.
Ukrainian officials said Mr Putin was trying to lift tensions ahead of the planned talks, to be held on Ukraine’s border with Belarus on Monday, local time.
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was defiant, saying: “We will not capitulate, we will not give up a single inch of our territory.”
Mr Zelensky told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson by telephone that the next 24 hours were crucial for Ukraine, Downing Street said.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said on social media it had prepared a venue for the talks, releasing a picture of a long table with Russian and Ukrainian flags.
Preparations for the talks came as a referendum in Belarus approved a new constitution ditching the country’s non-nuclear status in a move President Alexander Lukashenko said could open the way for Russian nuclear weapons to be hosted on Belarusian soil.
Mr Lukashenko warned Western countries that pushing Mr Putin too far with extreme sanctions and no fly zones was dangerous. “Now there is a lot of talk against the banking sector, gas, oil, SWIFT,” he said. “It’s worse than war. This is pushing Russia into a Third World War.”
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A Russian Armoured personnel carrier burns during fight with the Ukrainian armed forces in Kharkiv. Picture: AFP