Vladimir Putin put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert as his troops continued to face fierce resistance from the Ukrainian military and the west stepped up efforts to punish Moscow for Europe’s biggest war in more than 50 years.
Putin’s move came after US and western allies agreed to impose sanctions on the Russian central bank and remove some of the country’s lenders from the Swift messaging system — crucial for global payments — in some of the toughest such measures ever taken against a G20 economy.
It also followed a historic change in German defence policy on Sunday, when Chancellor Olaf Scholz abandoned the country’s longstanding caution and announced a huge boost to military spending in response to the ‘new era’ marked by Russia’s invasion of its neighbour.
Putin issued an order to put Russia’s strategic deterrence forces – including the units in charge of its nuclear capabilities – on high alert in response to what he called “illegitimate western sanctions”.
At a meeting in the Kremlin, Russia’s president told Sergei Shoigu, defense minister, and chief of general staff Valery Gerasimov that “western countries aren’t only taking unfriendly economic actions against our country […] but leaders of major Nato countries are making aggressive statements about our country.”
On the ground in Ukraine the mayor of Kharkiv, the country’s second city, claimed Ukrainian forces were back in full control of the city after repelling a Russian incursion that included special forces and marked the first time its forces had entered since the invasion Putin launched four days ago.
Russia stepped up artillery assaults on both Kharkiv and the capital Kyiv, which it continues to encircle slowly. Inside Kyiv, however, Russian troops who had breached the city continued to encounter strong resistance while residents sought refuge from shelling in cellars, underground garages and metro stations.
Late on Saturday the US and western allies agreed to impose sanctions on the Russian central bank and remove some of the country’s lenders from the Swift messaging system — crucial infrastructure for global payments — representing some of the toughest such measures ever taken against a G20 economy.
The moves came ahead of the sudden shift in German defence policy on Sunday, with Scholz announcing plans to spend more than 2 per cent of gross domestic product on the military.
“With the invasion of Ukraine, we are in a new era,” he told a special session of the Bundestag, where many MPs wore yellow and blue in honour of Ukraine.
In Kharkiv, Oleg Synegubov, head of the regional administration, said in a Telegram post that the city was being “completely cleansed” of Russian forces. “We have complete control over Kharkiv!” he said. Residents of the city were warned to stay in their homes.
Elsewhere video footage posted on social media indicated that Ukrainian forces had also repelled a Russian attack on Irpin, a small town to the west of the capital Kyiv. “Irpin has been defended,” its mayor Alexander Markushin said on Facebook.
However, Russia claimed to be making advances in southern Ukraine, where its forces have been moving northwards out of the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014.
The army said it had sealed off the cities of Kherson and Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov, taken over the town of Genichesk and seized control of the Chornobayivka airfield.
Russian and Ukrainian military claims cannot be independently verified.
Russia said it had sent a delegation to Belarus and was prepared to start peace negotiations, but Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky replied that he would not hold talks in a country used as a staging ground for the invasion.
“We want to meet, we want an end to the war. Warsaw, Bratislava, Budapest, Istanbul, Baku — we offered this to the Russian side,” Zelensky said. “And any other city suits us — in a country where missiles do not fly. That’s the only way to negotiate honestly and really end the war. ”
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, described the Russian offer as a “primitive and predictable propagandistic story”.
He said Ukraine would firmly reject the idea of talks while Russia was continuing to shell Ukrainian territory, saying they amounted to an “ultimatum”.
The diplomatic moves followed an announcement by the US and western allies that they would impose the toughest sanctions on Russia since the start of the conflict.
The US, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the European Commission said the measures would prevent Russia’s central bank from using its international reserves to undermine broader sanctions.
The countries’ leaders added they would eject some Russian banks from Swift, ensuring they were “disconnected from the international financial system” and harming their ability to operate. The western allies also vowed to crack down on “golden passports” that let wealthy Russians buy citizenship, and to impose sanctions on officials and elites close to the government.
The sanctions have sowed fear in Moscow and other Russian cities. People stormed cash machines and bank branches in search of cash, fearing a further collapse in value of the already sharply weaker rouble.
Russia’s central bank attempted to instil some calm to markets before they opened on Monday. In a statement on Sunday it said it would continuously supply banks with rouble liquidity. “The Russian banking system is stable, and has sufficient capital reserves and liquidity to function without outages in any situation,” the bank said.
Russian airlines were also cut off from most of the skies over Europe over the weekend. Finland, Belgium and Ireland have become the latest countries to announce bans on Russian airlines from landing in or using their airspace, joining a growing list. EU officials expect a bloc-wide ban to be announced later on Sunday.