Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to be on high alert on Sunday in response to what he called “aggressive statements” by leading NATO powers.
Associated Press reports that the order means Putin has ordered Russia’s nuclear weapons prepared for increased readiness to launch, raising the threat that the tensions could boil over into a nuclear war.
In giving it, the Russian leader also cited hard-hitting financial sanctions imposed by the West against Russia, including Putin himself.
Speaking at a meeting with his top officials, Putin directed the Russian 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.
"I order the minister of defence and the chief of general staff to put deterrent forces on special combat duty"
— Sky News (@SkyNews) February 27, 2022
US responds to Putin’s nuclear order
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Sunday that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert is part of a wider pattern of unprovoked escalation and “manufactured threats” from the Kremlin.
“This is really a pattern that we’ve seen from President Putin through the course of this conflict, which is manufacturing threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression — and the global community and the American people should look at it through that prism,” Psaki told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on “This Week.”
She added: “This is all a pattern from President Putin and we’re going to stand up for it, we have the ability to defend ourselves, but we also need to call out what we’re seeing here from President Putin.”
Russia has the largest nuclear forces in the world
Russia’s roughly 6,000 warheads make it the country with the largest nuclear arsenal. Most of those warheads are in reserves, with only about 1,600 deployed as land, sea, and air-based weapons, such as missiles in silos or bombs dropped by planes.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his invasion of Ukraine on February 24, he also made a more nebulous threat:
“No matter who tries to stand in our way or … create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”
Another part of his speech seemed to make his meaning clear. “Today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states,” Putin said.
As justification for the invasion, Putin also made unfounded claims that Ukraine was on a path to build its own nuclear arsenal.