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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ukraine agrees to talks with Russia, as Putin places nuclear forces on alert

Volunteers carry donations and load bottles for Molotov cocktails in Dnipro, Ukraine, Feb. 27, 2022.

By Anton Troianovski and Valerie Hopkins

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine agreed Sunday to have Ukrainian officials take part in talks with Russia “without preconditions,” even as President Vladimir Putin further escalated tensions by placing his nuclear forces on alert.

“We agreed that the Ukrainian delegation would meet with the Russian delegation without preconditions on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, near the Pripyat River,” Zelenskyy announced on his official Telegram channel, describing a phone call Sunday with President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.

Lukashenko “has taken responsibility for ensuring that all planes, helicopters and missiles stationed on Belarusian territory remain on the ground during the Ukrainian delegation’s travel, talks and return,” Zelenskyy continued. The Belarusian leader is a close ally of Putin’s.

It was not clear when the talks would begin, and late Sunday a Russian state news agency reported that they would only start Monday morning.

But just before Zelenskyy’s announcement, Putin issued a new threat to the West, which has increasingly rallied behind Ukraine as its citizens and its military fight back against the Russian invasion. In brief remarks aired on state television, he told his defense minister and his top military commander to place Russia’s nuclear forces on alert.

The Ukraine Interior Ministry said Sunday that 352 civilians have been killed since the invasion began, including 14 children.

And even as the talks neared, satellite imagery showed a mileslong convoy of hundreds of Russian military vehicles bearing down on Kyiv.

Putin characterized his nuclear alert move as a response to the West’s “aggressive” actions. Not only are Western countries imposing “illegitimate sanctions” against Russia, Putin said, “but senior officials of leading NATO countries are allowing themselves to make aggressive statements directed at our country.”

In Britain, which has ruled out deploying its own troops to Ukraine, a top official said Sunday that she would support Britons who want to go to Ukraine to take up arms. “Absolutely, if that is what they want to do,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.

As part of the West’s intensifying reaction to the Russian invasion, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Union commission, announced an EU-wide ban on all Russian aircraft. The bloc also said it would finance the donation of weapons to Ukraine and ban Kremlin-funded global broadcaster RT.

On the economic front, oil giant BP announced that it would “exit” its nearly 20% stake in Rosneft, the Russian state-controlled oil company, saying its involvement with Rosneft “simply cannot continue.” And FedEx and UPS said they were halting shipments to Russia.

Details about the meeting at the border were not yet clear, including who would participate. Zelenskyy earlier Sunday had rejected holding talks in Belarus — as Russia has been demanding — because Russia staged part of its invasion from Belarus after amassing troops in the country. But Zelenskyy’s stance shifted after he spoke by phone with Lukashenko and received his assurances.

“I will say frankly that I do not really believe in the outcome of this meeting, but let them try to make sure that no citizen of Ukraine has any doubt that I, as a president, did not try to stop the war,” Zelenskyy said.

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