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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with nuclear industry workers during a meeting on September 23, 2020 to mark the 75th anniversary of the country's nuclear industry at the Kremlin in Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with nuclear industry workers during a meeting on September 23, 2020 to mark the 75th anniversary of the country's nuclear industry at the Kremlin in Moscow. (Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS via Getty Images)

'Unacceptable and Reckless': Putin Puts Russian Nuclear Forces on 'Special Alert'

"We're horrified that Putin has escalated the potential for nuclear war," said one peace group.

Kenny Stancil

Russian President Vladimir Putin was condemned on Sunday after ordering his military to put its nuclear forces on "special alert."

"The U.S. and NATO must resist calls to react in kind and inject nuclear weapons deeper into this conflict."

The move, made in response to what Putin called "aggressive statements" by members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), makes it easier to launch nuclear weapons more quickly, though it doesn't necessarily mean that Russia intends to use them.

According to BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera, Putin is likely trying to "deter NATO support for Ukraine by creating fears over how far he is willing to go and creating ambiguity over what kind of support for Ukraine he will consider to be too much."

Still, anti-war advocates expressed alarm and outrage over Putin's move and called for level-headed negotiations to bring about a swift end to the conflict before it potentially spirals into a nuclear catastrophe.

"We're horrified that Putin has escalated the potential for nuclear war," tweeted U.S.-based peace group CodePink. "In moments like this it's easy to respond with fear and anger which calls for retaliation to such threats. This would be a mistake. This war must end immediately and that will only come from negotiations."

Nuclear disarmament advocates at Global Zero added: "This is unacceptable and reckless. If it's true that 'a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,' this is exactly the wrong step to take. Mistakes, miscalculations, false alarms happen and could spiral to catastrophe. Leaders must refrain from nuclear threats."

Referring to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's recent announcement that Kyiv intends to send a delegation to the Ukraine-Belarus border to hold discussions with Moscow "without preconditions," CodePink said that "this meeting is the way forward."

"The U.S. and NATO must not discourage these negotiations or try to dominate them with their own agendas," the group stressed. "The security concerns of the people most at risk in this war should come first!"

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said at a press conference that "this order by President Putin came shortly after the announcement was made about two delegations ready to meet [for talks]."

"We see this announcement or this order as an attempt to raise the stakes and to put additional pressure on the Ukrainian delegation," said Kuleba. "But we will not give in to this pressure. We will approach these talks with a very simple approach. We go there to listen [to what] what Russia has to say and we will tell them what we think of all this."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, for his part, denounced Putin's "dangerous rhetoric," calling it "irresponsible."

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also condemned Putin's move, saying that the Russian president is "continuing to escalate this war in a manner that is totally unacceptable."

TIME reported:

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.

In a televised meeting with his defense minister and top military commander, Putin said that "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."

Since Moscow launched its war on Ukraine four days ago, the Biden administration, the United Kingdom, the European Union's member nations, and other U.S. allies have provided increased military aid to Kyiv and imposed hard-hitting financial sanctions on Russia, including freezing the assets of Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

NATO on Friday activated parts of its Response Force for the first time in history. On Sunday, in another pair of historic firsts, the E.U. agreed to ship arms to Ukraine and banned all Russian aircraft—including not only the country's airlines but also Russian-chartered private jets—from European skies.

Those decisions followed commitments made by several individual countries, including U.S. President Joe Biden's authorization of an additional $350 million worth of military equipment for Ukraine and Germany's moves to send weapons to Kyiv and boost military spending.

On the economic front, the U.S, U.K., and E.U. intensified sanctions against Russia, agreeing Saturday to block "selected" banks from the SWIFT global financial communications system, which moves money around more than 11,000 banks and other financial institutions worldwide.

In addition, leaders in the U.S., U.K. Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and European Commission took steps to impose "restrictive measures" on Russia's central bank, targeting an estimated $640 billion in foreign exchange reserves that the Kremlin may soon be forced to rely on to support its currency—which some analysts fear will crash in value amid Western sanctions.

Economic historian Adam Tooze of Columbia University warned Saturday night that "we are in [a] truly dangerous spiral"—in which Ukrainian resistance slows Russia's attack, negotiations are absent or non-productive, and Putin threatens to ramp up the viciousness of his attack while NATO members send more weapons to Ukraine and the West strengthens sanctions.

"What is Russia's next move?" he asked.

In a Sunday blog post, Tooze made the case that the combination of "Russian military frustration, increasingly emphatic Western commitment to backing Ukraine's remarkable resistance, and the sanctions on top... forces Putin to look for a qualitatively different means to respond to an increasingly existential situation," as evidenced by his recent nuclear threat.

BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner argued that Putin's nuclear threat "certainly got the West's attention. This sort of escalation is exactly what NATO military planners feared and it's why the alliance has repeatedly announced it will not be sending troops to help Ukraine repel its Russian invaders."

He continued:

Russia's offensive is not going entirely to plan. On day four, not a single major Ukrainian city is in Russian hands and the Russians appear to be taking heavy casualties.

This will be causing some frustration and impatience in Moscow. And it's hard to see the proposed peace talks on the Belarus border reaching a deal that works for both Moscow and Kyiv.

Putin wants Ukraine fully back into its sphere, the Zelenskyy government wants it to stay independent. Short of partition, that doesn't leave much room for compromise.

So, coupled with today's nuclear-tipped warning to the West to back off, we are likely to see an intensification of Russia's offensive on Ukraine in coming days, with even less regard for civilian casualties than has been shown so far.

According to Tooze, "Over the last week, we have seen how the reality of war, the shock of moving from hypothetical to reality, changes the calculus. That is the stage we are reaching with the economy next week."

"Will economic and financial chaos add a qualitatively new element to the escalatory logic. Clearly, at this point the West really is aiming to inflict heavy damage," he wrote. "But we should be prepared for the fallout, forgive the phrase, if things get chaotic next week. Are we ready for a further escalation of nuclear threats?"

Calling Putin's nuclear threat on Sunday "wild and reckless," Global Zero's Derek Johnson said that "[the] U.S. and NATO must resist calls to react in kind and inject nuclear weapons deeper into this conflict."

It is "imperative to keep lines open between Washington and Moscow in order to mitigate miscalculation," he added. "Escalation cannot be controlled."

The New York Times reported Sunday that U.S. officials "were still debating whether to alter the status of American nuclear forces."

"But for now, according to two government officials, they were trying to avoid being lured into a spiral of escalation, taking the position that American nuclear forces are on a constant low level of alert that is sufficient to deter Russian use of nuclear weapons," the newspaper added.

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