Putin puts Russia’s nuclear forces on alert, cites sanctions

A man walks in front of a destroyed building after a Russian missile attack in the town of Vasylkiv, near Kyiv, on February 27, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 28 February 2022
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Putin puts Russia’s nuclear forces on alert, cites sanctions

  • Kyiv was quiet after huge explosions lit up the morning sky and authorities reported blasts at one of the airports
  • Following gains in the city of Kharkiv and multiple ports, Russia sent a delegation to Belarus for talks with Ukraine

KYIV: In a dramatic escalation of East-West tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces put on high alert Sunday in response to what he called “aggressive statements” by leading NATO powers.
The order means Putin wants Russia’s nuclear weapons prepared for increased readiness to launch and raises the threat that Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and the West's response to it could boil over into nuclear warfare.
Amid the worrying development, the office of Ukraine’s president said a delegation would meet with Russian officials as Moscow’s troops drew closer to Kyiv.
Putin, in giving the nuclear alert directive, cited not only the alleged statements by NATO members but the hard-hitting financial sanctions imposed by the West against Russia, including the Russian leader himself.
Speaking at a meeting with his top officials, Putin told his defense minister and the chief of the military’s General Staff to put the nuclear deterrent forces in a “special regime of combat duty.”
“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,” Putin said in televised comments.




The body of a Russian soldier lies near destroyed Russian military vehicles on the roadside on the outskirts of Kharkiv on Feb. 26, 2022, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Sergey Bobok / AFP)

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Putin was resorting to a pattern he used in the weeks before launching the invasion of Ukraine, "which is to manufacture threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression. The global community and American people should look at it through that prism. We’ve seen him do this time and time again.”
She told ABC's “This Week” that Russia has not been under threat from NATO or Ukraine.
“This is all a pattern from President Putin and we’re going to stand up ... ,we have the ability to defend ourselves but we also need to call out what we’re seeing here,” Psaki said.
Putin threatened in the days before Russia's invasion to retaliate harshly against any nations that intervened directly in the conflict in Ukraine, and he specifically raised the specter of his country’s status as a nuclear power.
The US ambassador to the United Nations responded to the news from Moscow while appearing on a Sunday news program.
“President Putin is continuing to escalate this war in a manner that is totally unacceptable,” Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said. “And we have to continue to condemn his actions in the most strong, strongest possible way.”
The practical meaning of Putin’s order was not immediately clear. 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, but nuclear-capable bombers and other aircraft are not.
If Putin is arming or otherwise raising the nuclear combat readiness of his bombers, or if he is ordering more ballistic missile submarines to sea, then the United States might feel compelled to respond in kind, according to Hans Kristensen, a nuclear analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. That would mark a worrisome escalation and a potential crisis, he said.

The alarming step came as street fighting broke out in Ukraine’s second-largest city and Russian troops squeezed strategic ports in the country's south, advances that appeared to mark a new phase of Russia's invasion following a wave of attacks on airfields and fuel facilities elsewhere in the country.
Around the same time as Putin's nuclear move, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's office said on the Telegram messaging app that the two sides would meet at an unspecified location on the Belarusian border. The message did not give a precise time for the meeting.
The announcement came hours after Russia announced that its delegation had flown to Belarus to await talks. Ukrainian officials initially rejected the move, saying any talks should take place elsewhere than Belarus, where Russia placed a large contingent of troops. Belarus was one of the places from where Russian troops entered Ukraine.

The UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on the developing humanitarian crisis in Ukraine following Russia's invasion, diplomats said Sunday.
The session will be held in New York on Monday at 3:00 pm (2000 GMT), a diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
It was requested by French President Emmanuel Macron and will feature officials from the UN's humanitarian affairs and refugee agencies.
France has also asked that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speak at the meeting, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
The UN Security Council has held three meetings on the Russia-Ukraine crisis in the past week.
Just minutes into the second one on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he had sent troops into Ukraine.
The council was also convening a fourth session on Sunday afternoon to vote on a resolution calling for a special session of the General Assembly over Russia's invasion.
Russia on Friday vetoed a council resolution condemning Moscow's “aggression” in Ukraine.
Earlier Sunday, the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, was eerily quiet after huge explosions lit up the morning sky and authorities reported blasts at one of the airports. Only an occasional car appeared on a deserted main boulevard as a strict 39-hour curfew kept people off the streets. Terrified residents instead hunkered down in homes, underground garages and subway stations in anticipation of a full-scale Russian assault.
“The past night was tough – more shelling, more bombing of residential areas and civilian infrastructure," Zelenskyy said.
Until Sunday, Russia's troops had remained on the outskirts of Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) south of the border with Russia, while other forces rolled past to press the offensive deeper into Ukraine.
Videos posted on Ukrainian media and social networks showed Russian vehicles moving across Kharkiv and Russian troops roaming the city in small groups. One showed Ukrainian troops firing at the Russians and damaged Russian light utility vehicles abandoned nearby.

The images underscored the determined resistance Russian troops face while attempting to enter Ukraine's bigger cities. Ukrainians have volunteered en masse to help defend the capital, Kyiv, and other cities, taking guns distributed by authorities and preparing firebombs to fight Russian forces.
Ukraine's government also is releasing prisoners with military experience who want to fight for the country, a prosecutor's office official, Andriy Sinyuk, told the Hromadske TV channel Sunday. He did not specify whether the move applied to prisoners convicted of all levels of crimes.
Putin hasn’t disclosed his ultimate plans, but Western officials believe he is determined to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own, redrawing the map of Europe and reviving Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.
The pressure on strategic ports in the south of Ukraine appeared aimed at seizing control of the country's coastline stretching from the border with Romania in the west to the border with Russia in the east. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Russian forces had blocked the cities of Kherson on the Black Sea and the port of Berdyansk on the Azov Sea.
He said the Russian forces also took control of an airbase near Kherson and the Azov Sea city of Henichesk. Ukrainian authorities also have reported fighting near Odesa, Mykolaiv and other areas.
Cutting Ukraine’s access to its sea ports would deal a major blow to the country’s economy. It also could allow Moscow to build a land corridor to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014 and until now was connected to Russia by a 19-kilometer (12-mile) bridge, the longest bridge in Europe which opened in 2018.
Flames billowed from an oil depot near an airbase in Vasylkiv, a city 37 kilometers (23 miles) south of Kyiv where there has been intense fighting, according to the mayor. Russian forces blew up a gas pipeline in Kharkiv, prompting the government to warn people to cover their windows with damp cloth or gauze as protection from smoke, the president’s office said.
Ukrainian military deputy commander Lt.-Gen. Yevhen Moisiuk sounded a defiant note in a message aimed at Russian troops.
“Unload your weapons, raise your hands so that our servicemen and civilians can understand that you have heard us. This is your ticket home,” Moisiuk said in a Facebook video.
The number of casualties so far from Europe's largest land conflict since World War II remains unclear amid the fog of combat.
Ukraine’s health minister reported Saturday that 198 people, including three children, had been killed and more than 1,000 others wounded. It was unclear whether those figures included both military and civilian casualties. Russia has not released any casualty information.
Ukraine's UN ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, tweeted Saturday that Ukraine appealed to the International Committee of the Red Cross “to facilitate repatriation of thousands of bodies of Russian soldiers.” An accompanying chart claimed 3,500 Russian troops have been killed.

Laetitia Courtois, ICRC’s permanent observer to the UN, told The Associated Press that the situation in Ukraine was “a limitation for our teams on the ground” and “we therefore cannot confirm numbers or other details.”
The United Nations’ refugee agency said Sunday that about 368,000 Ukrainians have arrived in neighboring countries since the invasion started Thursday. The U.N. has estimated the conflict could produce as many as 4 million refugees, depending how long it continues.
Zelenskyy denounced Russia’s offensive as “state terrorism.” He said the attacks on Ukrainian cities should be investigated by an international war crimes tribunal and cost Russia its place as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
As Russia pushes ahead with its offensive, the West is working to equip the outnumbered Ukrainian forces with weapons and ammunition while punishing Russia with far-reaching sanctions intended to further isolate Moscow.
The US pledged an additional $350 million in military assistance to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, body armor and small arms. Germany said it would send missiles and anti-tank weapons to the besieged country and that it would close its airspace to Russian planes.
The US, European Union and United Kingdom agreed to block “selected” Russian banks from the SWIFT global financial messaging system, which moves money around more than 11,000 banks and other financial institutions worldwide, part of a new round of sanctions aiming to impose a severe cost on Moscow for the invasion. They also agreed to impose ”restrictive measures” on Russia’s central bank.
Responding to a request from Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, tech billionaire Elon Musk said on Twitter that his satellite-based internet system Starlink was now active in Ukraine and that there were “more terminals en route.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, meanwhile, said Sunday that his country was committing 100 billion euros ($112.7 billion) to a special fund for its armed forces, raising its defense spending above 2% of gross domestic product. Scholz told a special session of the Bundestag the investment was needed "to protect our freedom and our democracy.”
Putin sent troops into Ukraine after denying for weeks that he intended to do so, all the while building up a force of almost 200,000 troops along the countries’ borders. He claims the West has failed to take seriously Russia’s security concerns about NATO, the Western military alliance that Ukraine aspires to join. But he has also expressed scorn about Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state.
Russia claims its assault on Ukraine is aimed only at military targets, but bridges, schools and residential neighborhoods have been hit.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova, said Ukraine was gathering evidence of shelling of residential areas, kindergartens and hospitals to submit to an international war crimes court in The Hague as possible crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court's prosecutor has said he is monitoring the conflict closely.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warned Sunday that Putin could use “the most unsavory means,” including banned chemical or biological weapons, to defeat Ukraine.
“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,” Truss told Sky News.


Germany to send new frigate to protect ships in the Red Sea

Germany will send a new frigate to the Red Sea in August. (AFP file photo)
Updated 20 April 2024
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Germany to send new frigate to protect ships in the Red Sea

  • The Houthis said on Thursday they had attacked almost 100 vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in months of strikes
  • Leading shipping industry associations appeal to UN to protect vessels after Iran seizure

BERLIN: Germany said on Saturday it will send a new frigate to the Red Sea in August to help secure maritime traffic, which has been disrupted for months due to Houthi attacks.

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said the “Hamburg” will replace the “Hessen,” which left the zone on Saturday.
The “Hessen” had been deployed in the area on Feb. 23 as part of the EU’s “Aspides” mission to protect ships.
The statement said the “Hamburg” had escorted 27 merchant ships in the intervention zone and had, on four occasions, repulsed drone and missile attacks by the Houthis.
It had around 240 military personnel on board.

BACKGROUND

Houthi attacks in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea have been met with retaliatory strikes by US and British forces since January.

The Houthis said on Thursday they had attacked almost 100 vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in months of strikes.
They began attacking ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea in November, a campaign they say is intended as a show of support for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
The attacks on the vital trade route have been met with retaliatory strikes by US and British forces since January.
The US set up a multinational task force late last year to “protect” Red Sea shipping.
Recent Houthi attacks on merchant shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have also affected the global maritime transport chain.
Merchant ships and seafarers are increasingly in peril at sea as attacks escalate in the Middle East, the industry said in a letter released on Friday. It said the UN must do more to protect supply chains.
In a letter sent to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the world’s leading shipping industry associations said Iran’s seizure on April 13 of the MSC Aries container ship 50 nautical miles off the UAE coast “once again highlighted the intolerable situation where shipping has become a target.”
“Innocent seafarers have been killed. Seafarers are being held hostage,” the letter said.
“The world would be outraged if four airliners were seized and held hostage with innocent souls onboard. Regrettably, there does not seem to be the same response or concern (for ships and their crew members).”
India’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that an Indian woman who was a mariner on the MSC Aries had returned to the country.
It added that it was in touch with the other 16 Indian crew members still being held aboard the vessel.
The industry letter said: “Seafarers and the maritime sector are neutral and must not be politicized.”
The letter added: “Given the continually evolving and severe threat profile within the area, we call on you for enhanced coordinated military presence, missions, and patrols in the region to protect our seafarers against any further possible aggression.”
Iran has also seized other vessels in international waters in recent years, heightening risks for merchant shipping in the area.

 


Mediterranean ministers urge EU to ‘deepen’ ties to tackle migration roots

Updated 20 April 2024
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Mediterranean ministers urge EU to ‘deepen’ ties to tackle migration roots

MADRID: Ministers from five Mediterranean nations have urged the EU to “deepen” bilateral agreements with migrant countries of origin and increase funding to tackle the root causes of migration.
During the Gran Canaria Island meeting, ministers of interior and migration from the MED5 nations — Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain — discussed the new migration and asylum pact adopted by the EU Parliament on April 11.
Years in the making, the deal involves a sweeping reform of the bloc’s asylum policies that will harden border procedures while forcing all 27 nations to share responsibility for migrant arrivals.

FASTFACT

The new EU pact includes building border centers to hold asylum-seekers and sending some to outside ‘safe’ countries.

The reform was spurred by the massive influx of migrants in 2015, with its provisions taking effect in 2026.
Hailing the pact as “historic,” Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said there was “still a long way to go” and that the solution lay in “prevention” and addressing the root causes of migration “at its source.”
“The key to migration management lies in bilateral cooperation,” he told a news conference, urging the European Commission “to deepen and broaden partnerships and agreements with third countries” to stem flows of irregular migrants.
“But we believe there is room for improvement, and the commitment should also focus on increasing European funds and flexible financing tools destined for such cooperation,” he said.
Under current EU rules, the arrival country bears responsibility for hosting and vetting asylum-seekers and returning those deemed inadmissible, which has put southern frontline states under huge pressure, fueling far-right opposition.
The new EU pact, which includes building border centers to hold asylum-seekers and sending some to outside “safe” countries, has been denounced by migrant charities and NGOs, with Amnesty International warning it would “lead to greater human suffering.”

 


Blinken will be the latest top US official to visit China in a bid to keep ties on an even keel

Updated 20 April 2024
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Blinken will be the latest top US official to visit China in a bid to keep ties on an even keel

  • The United States and China also are battling over trade and commerce issues, with President Joe Biden announcing new tariffs on imports of Chinese steel this past week
  • Talks between Blinken and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected, although neither side will confirm such a meeting is happening until shortly before it takes place

WASHINGTON: Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to China this coming week as Washington and Beijing try to keep ties on an even keel despite major differences on issues from the path to peace in the Middle East to the supply of synthetic opioids that have heightened fears over global stability.
The rivals are at odds on numerous fronts, including Russia’s war in Ukraine, Taiwan and the South China Sea, North Korea, Hong Kong, human rights and the detention of American citizens. The United States and China also are battling over trade and commerce issues, with President Joe Biden announcing new tariffs on imports of Chinese steel this past week.
The State Department said Saturday that Blinken, on his second visit to China in less than a year, will travel to Shanghai and Beijing starting Wednesday for three days of meetings with senior Chinese officials, including Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Talks between Blinken and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected, although neither side will confirm such a meeting is happening until shortly before it takes place.
The department said in a statement that Blinken would “discuss a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues,” including the Middle East, the war in Ukraine, the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
He will also talk about progress made in “resuming counternarcotics cooperation, military-to-military communication, artificial intelligence, and strengthening people-to-people ties” and will reaffirm how important it is for the US and China to be “responsibly managing competition, even in areas where our two countries disagree,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.
The trip follows a phone call this month between Biden and Xi in which they pledged to keep high-level contacts open, something they had agreed to last year at a face-to-face summit in California. Since that call, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has visited China and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has spoken by phone with his Chinese counterpart. Meetings at lower levels also have taken place.
Despite those encounters, relations are rocky. The US has recently become more vocal in its calls for China to stop supporting Russia’s military-industrial sector, which Washington says has allowed Moscow to boost weapons production to support the war against Ukraine.
“We see China sharing machine tools, semiconductors, other dual-use items that have helped Russia rebuild the defense industrial base that sanctions and export controls had done so much to degrade,” Blinken said Friday. “Now, if China purports on the one hand to want good relations with Europe and other countries, it can’t on the other hand be fueling what is the biggest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War.”
Blinken also has pushed for China to take a more active stance in pressing Iran not to escalate tensions in the Middle East. He has spoken to his Chinese counterpart several times since the Israel-Hamas war began six months ago as he has sought China’s help in getting Iran to restrain proxy groups it has supported, armed and funded in the region.
That topic has taken on new urgency since direct back-and-forth attacks by Iran and Israel on each other’s soil in the past week.
Also high on the agenda for Blinken will be Taiwan and the South China Sea.
The US has strongly condemned Chinese military exercises threatening Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province and vowed to reunify with the mainland by force if necessary. Successive US administrations have steadily ramped up military support and sales for Taipei, much to the anger of Chinese officials.
In the South China Sea, the US and others have become increasingly concerned by provocative Chinese actions in and around disputed areas. In particular, the US has voiced objections to what it says are Chinese attempts to thwart legitimate activities by others in the waterway, notably the Philippines and Vietnam.
That was a major topic of concern earlier this month when Biden held a three-way summit with the prime minister of Japan and the president of the Philippines.


London police apologize after threatening to arrest ‘openly Jewish’ man near pro-Palestinian protest

Updated 20 April 2024
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London police apologize after threatening to arrest ‘openly Jewish’ man near pro-Palestinian protest

  • London’s Metropolitan Police Service on Friday afternoon apologized for the language the officer used in describing Falter’s appearance
  • “In an effort to make a point about the policing of protest we caused further offense,” the force said

LONDON: London’s police force has been forced to issue two apologies after officers threatened to arrest an “openly Jewish” man if he refused to leave the area around a pro-Palestinian march because his presence risked provoking the demonstrators.
Gideon Falter, chief executive of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, was wearing a traditional Jewish skullcap when he was stopped by police while trying to cross a street in central London as demonstrators filed past on April 13.
One officer told Falter he was worried that the man’s “quite openly Jewish” appearance could provoke a reaction from the protesters, according to video posted by the campaign group. A second officer then told Falter he would be arrested if he refused to be escorted out of the area because he was “causing a breach of the peace.”
London’s Metropolitan Police Service on Friday afternoon apologized for the language the officer used in describing Falter’s appearance, but said counter demonstrators had to be aware “that their presence is provocative.”
The Met later deleted that apology from its social media accounts and issued a second statement.


“In an effort to make a point about the policing of protest we caused further offense,” the force said. “This was never our intention. We have removed that statement and we apologize.”
“Being Jewish is not a provocation. Jewish Londoners must be able to feel safe in the city.”
The episode highlights the challenges London police face amid the boiling tensions surrounding the war in Gaza, with some Jewish residents saying they feel threatened by repeated pro-Palestinian marches through the streets of the British capital.
While the marches have been largely peaceful, many demonstrators accuse Israel of genocide and a small number have shown support for Hamas, the group that led the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and which has been banned by the British government as a terrorist organization.
The Met has deployed thousands of officers during each of the dozen major marches as it sought to protect the rights of the pro-Palestinian protesters and prevent clashes with counter-demonstrators and Jewish residents.
Following Falter’s confrontation with police, the Campaign Against Antisemitism issued a call for Londoners to exercise their right to walk wherever they choose on April 27, when another pro-Palestinian march is scheduled.
In response, the Met emailed Falter about what it described as his intention to “protest” next week and offered to meet with him to discuss ways to “ensure we can police the event as safely as possible,” according an exchange of correspondence released by the campaign group.
Falter rejected the idea that he was staging a protest, saying he was planning to go for a walk as a “private individual” and others might choose to join him.
“Unfortunately @MetPoliceUK is missing the point,” he said on the social media site X. “This is not a protest or counterprotest. Anyone who wishes to walk around London on Saturday 27th April … is free to do so. Even if they are ‘quite openly Jewish.’”


Denmark airport reopens after bomb threat, man arrested

Updated 20 April 2024
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Denmark airport reopens after bomb threat, man arrested

  • Police arrested a man in his thirties and removed an object “likely to contain explosives“
  • The airport reopened at 7:00 pm

STOCKHOLM: Denmark’s second largest airport reopened late Saturday after a man was arrested in connection with a bomb threat that forced its evacuation, police said.
During the search in Billund airport in central Denmark, police arrested a man in his thirties and removed an object “likely to contain explosives.”
Chemical tests will be carried out for confirmation.
Danish police arrested the man after he “himself informed the police at the airport that the object he had dropped off contained explosives,” they said in a statement.
The airport reopened at 7:00 p.m. (0500 GMT), but several flights were canceled or delayed during its closure.
Police are also investigating whether there is a link between this bomb threat and the bombing of an ATM in Billund at around 4:00 am on Saturday.
Billund airport is near the headquarters of the manufacturer of Lego toy bricks and the Legoland theme park.