Russian president Vladimir Putin put his country’s nuclear forces on high alert as Ukraine continued to beat back his troops from its major cities and the European Union announced sweeping action to boost Kyiv’s war effort and punish Moscow for its invasion.
Four days after Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine and began bombarding it with missiles, Kyiv said that all key cities across the country of 41 million people were still under government control on Sunday night.
As Ukrainian and Russian delegations met for tentative talks on Ukraine’s border with Belarus – which is Moscow’s ally in the war – EU states braced for a continued influx of refugees after the UN said fighting had displaced nearly 400,000 people and Brussels said that number could surpass seven million.
Mr Putin ordered his defence chiefs to move Russia’s nuclear forces to a “special regime of combat duty” after accusing western states of taking “unfriendly steps against our country in the economic dimension – I mean the illegal sanctions that everyone knows about very well” – and said Nato members were making “aggressive statements” about Russia.
Ukraine said Moscow was trying to put it under pressure during the talks on the border, and the US called it part of “a pattern from President Putin and we’re going to stand up to it”.
“We’ve seen him do this time and time again. At no point has Russia been under threat from Nato, has Russia been under threat from Ukraine … We have the ability to defend ourselves, but we also need to call out what we’re seeing here from President Putin,” said White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Many Russians tried to withdraw cash and exchange roubles for dollars and euro as EU states, the US, Britain and Canada agreed to shut out Russia’s central bank from transactions and exclude key Russian lenders from the Swift payments system.
The EU also agreed to ban Russian state-owned television network Russia Today and news agency Sputnik, bar all Russian planes from flying over the bloc’s territory, and to buy weapons for Kyiv.
“Our airspace will be closed to every Russian plane – and that includes the private jets of oligarchs,” said European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
“For the first time ever, the European Union will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack. This is a watershed moment,” she added.
Ireland will not take part in sending lethal weapons but would not block others from doing so, said Minister for Justice Helen McEntee.
“We’re not going to prevent any other member state from providing that funding or from sending any types of weaponry,” she said, adding that Ireland would also “provide humanitarian assistance” to Ukraine and help refugees fleeing the war.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz drew a standing ovation from the Bundestag on Sunday for unveiling a €100 billion defence fund to boost military spending and halt what he called Mr Putin’s dream of a “Russian empire” in Europe.
He unveiled Germany’s most radical rethink of foreign and energy policy in living memory as nearly 500,000 people marched for peace in Berlin – one of many such demonstrations in Europe and North America over the weekend.
“In cold blood, Putin has started a war of aggression,” Mr Scholz said. “This new reality requires a clear response. We have given it. What has to happen for peace in Europe, will happen.”
As thousands of Ukrainians made for neighbouring EU states – Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia – European commissioner Janez Lenarcic said “the currently expected number of displaced Ukrainians is over seven million”, and warned of “what could become the largest humanitarian crisis on our European continent in