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Ukraine war intensifies, Putin triggers nuclear alert, ceasefire talks start

Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine saw his troops make slow but steady progress to seize control of a country at the heart of Europe, a move that has shattered the world order and brought back the risk of a major war between superpowers.

(CN) --- The war in Ukraine intensified on Sunday as fierce fighting was reported across the country and Russia made more progress in its brutal campaign to strangle its southwestern neighbor and bring Kyiv back under Moscow's control.

Sunday saw the invasion become even more of a danger to escalate into a broader conflict as Russian President Vladimir Putin put his military on nuclear alert and showed no sign of backing down from his wild plot to take control of Ukraine in defiance of international condemnation and even risk war with the West.

Although Ukrainians were putting up stiff resistance, it appeared that Russian troops were making advances in attacking Kyiv, the capital of 3 million inhabitants, and encircling Ukrainian forces in the eastern part of the country as Russian troops pushed up from Crimea and the south toward the Donbas, where a war has simmered for the past eight years between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces, according to an analysis by the Institute for the Study of War.

On Saturday, there was hope that Russia's invasion was failing, fueled in part by images of civilians taking up arms and videos of burning Russian tanks and armored vehicles. But military experts say the likelihood is that Russia will seize the country. It is believed that about 50,000 of the 150,000 troops Russia parked at the borders of Ukraine in advance of the invasion have been deployed.

“I think it's a bit early to draw conclusions about the success or otherwise of the Russian campaign,” said Chris Deverell, a former British commander who helped lead the 2003 invasion of Iraq, speaking on Sky News television.

“It's possible that the Russians have some logistic issues, and it is likely that the Ukrainians are fighting back hard, but I also think that at some point it's likely that the Russians will take control of Kyiv, but not without a fight.”

He said the Russians will avoid trying to take cities because they don't want to get bogged down in street fighting. With Ukrainians showing great determination to fight, he said he expected the war to become “very bloody” when Russia tries to seize cities.

“The evidence is that Putin's life depends on making Ukraine into a clan state, so he's all in,” he said. “So at the end of the day, I don't think he's going to restrict his use of weaponry or tactics to achieve his aim.”

Sunday saw both sides accusing the other of war crimes, the shelling of civilians and extreme violence. Huge toxic fumes billowed out of oil depots struck in Kyiv, presumably by Russian missiles, and in Donetsk, an industrial city in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels are based.

Russian and Ukrainian diplomats were tentatively expected to meet to negotiate a possible ceasefire at a site on the border with Belarus, though reportedly the talks had not started as of Sunday night.

Still, the prospects of a ceasefire are highly uncertain and the expectation is that the war is set to only become bloodier as Russian troops advance on Kyiv. Many in Ukraine are keen to keep up the fight and the West is talking about supporting a sustained insurgency against a Russian occupation.

“If [Putin] succeeds in his ultimate objective, which is regime change, and force Zelenskyy out of power, arrest him or kill him, we need to continue to support the resistance,” said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday.

Such an insurgency would be reminiscent of a bloody guerilla war that anti-communist Ukrainians waged at the end of World War II against Joseph Stalin's totalitarian rule. That insurgency failed and Stalin shipped hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians into the gulag system.

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News reports have said the CIA has been preparing Ukrainian forces for an insurgency against a potential Russian invasion since at least 2015, shortly after Ukraine fell into mayhem following the U.S.-backed overthrow of a pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, during the so-called “Maidan Revolution.”

Since then, the U.S. has been heavily involved in Ukrainian affairs with U.S. President Joe Biden, then acting as vice president, playing a central role in efforts to move Kyiv away from Moscow's sphere of influence. The Maidan Revolution led Putin to annex Crimea and support an insurgency among ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.

Liz Truss, the British foreign secretary, said people in the West must prepare themselves for a years-long conflict that will mean hardships for Western Europe too as Russia's gas and oil imports are cut off.

Since Putin launched the attack, the West has imposed an unprecedented amount of sanctions against Russia in a bid to cripple the country's economy and put an end to Putin's regime. Russian banks, companies and the Russian population now face being cut off from Western financial systems.

Most of Europe on Sunday had even closed its air space to Russian passenger flights, such as those run by the state carrier Aeroflot. On Saturday, France stopped a Russian cargo ship passing through the English Channel, citing it as connected to a sanctioned Russian company. The EU was contemplating shutting ports to Russian ships and Turkey, a NATO member, was considering to close the Bosporus Strait to Russian warships.

The United Kingdom said it was going after the assets and bank accounts of rich Russians, who are known as oligarchs and own vast amounts of property, soccer teams and businesses. London has been described as a “playground for Russian oligarchs.” Britain has long been among Europe's most fiercely anti-Russian countries when it comes to foreign policy.

“We need to be prepared for a very long haul,” Truss said, speaking on Sky News on Sunday. “They are very, very tough sanctions, cutting the Russian economy to its knees, cutting access to the Western system; we've banned Aeroflot from flying into the United Kingdom; we're targeting key oligarchs, we've got a hit list of oligarchs.”

“But these will take time to have an effect and debilitate the Russian economy,” Truss said. “We need to wean Europe off Russian oil and gas, this will take time.”

Victor Gao, an international politics professor at Soochow University in China, warned that the West was playing with fire with its sanctions.

“Such sanctions will be mutually destructive, mainly because Russia is a very, very important country in the world, politically, militarily, in terms of energy, economic relations of all kinds,” he said, speaking on RT, a Russian state television channel. “Russia is such an important and indispensable energy supplier to so many countries in Europe.”

Europe hasn't closed the door completely to Russian gas because it reportedly is looking at letting Germany and Italy continue to import Russian energy.

Gao said blocking Russian banks from the international banking system makes “it almost impossible for Russia to deal with other countries in Europe.”

It is “very hurtful to Russian interests of course on the one hand, but it's very hurtful on the European interests,” he added. “Who benefits from all this? I think the United States has an agenda to benefit hugely because they want to sell LNG [liquefied natural gas] to Europe countries and they do not want to have European countries buy more and more oil and natural gas from Russia, which is cheaper, which is more sustainable.”

For now, though, the EU, NATO, the U.S. and other allies are going for an all-out confrontational break with Russia in retaliation for Putin's brutal invasion of Ukraine, which many in Europe compare to Adolf Hitler's nationalist expansionism that led to World War II.

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Ukraine was on track to become a NATO and EU member and this trajectory was behind Putin's invasion. The Kremlin said NATO was crossing a “red line” by trying to get Ukraine to join the military alliance, which was set up to deter and contain the Soviet Union.

On Sunday, the European Union agreed to send arms shipments to Ukraine, a first in the union's history and a sign that European powers are prepared to confront Russia militarily.

Since the end of World War II, European nations have tried to demilitarize and stay out of wars, but Putin's aggression seems to be ending the continent's more dovish tendencies and spurred the EU into becoming a military force, something the United States has been calling for.

Sunday saw massive demonstrations in European cities against Russia's invasion with about 100,000 people taking to the streets in Berlin, a country that has suddenly found itself ditching its policies of neutrality and rapprochement.

In recent days, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a right-wing Social Democrat and his hawkish anti-Russian coalition partners, the Greens and Free Democrats, have closed off a controversial natural gas pipeline across the Baltic Sea from Russia, the Nord Stream 2, lifted a ban on arms shipments to Ukraine and supported cutting off Russian banks from access to the U.S.-based international banking system. All of these moves are massive shifts for Germany, Europe's most powerful country. These anti-Russian moves risk putting Germany in conflict with Moscow, a scenario that has been largely avoided since the end of World War II.

Putin's gruesome decision to send his army into the vast flatlands of Ukraine has shattered world peace and ushered in what many fear is a new, and deadly, Cold War between the West and the East.

China has not condemned Russia for the invasion and this may turn out to be a major inflection point in world affairs as Russia definitively turns its back on the West and builds a future based on gaining influence in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America.

However, in the West the hope is that Putin has made a fatal miscalculation, winding up bogged down in an unpopular and bloody years-long conquest of Ukraine that will bring his regime to an end just as the Soviet Union's costly invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s helped unravel the U.S.S.R.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat and head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, suggested that Putin's zeal for an invasion was the delusional act of an autocrat who has lost a sense of reality.

“What we do know is that over the last couple of years, Putin has been more and more isolated,” Warner said, speaking on Meet the Press. “When you are an authoritarian leader and you have less and less inputs and you're only hearing from people that want to say to the boss, 'Hey, you're right,' I think that leads to miscalculation. I think that is what has happened in the case of his invasion in Ukraine.”

Also on Meet the Press, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Putin's invasion has strengthened the North Atlantic alliance and is spurring efforts to get Finland, Sweden and Georgia to join the pact.

“Putin miscalculated; he thought this would divide NATO, in fact it has strengthened NATO and brought it together in ways that we haven't seen in years.”

But Putin's brutal gamble is already paying off in some ways as his troops gain more territory in eastern Ukraine and are poised to take all of the territory claimed by two self-declared independent republics of Donetsk and Luhansk that were the purported reason for the invasion in the first place.

Also, his troops on Saturday blew up a dam Ukraine built after the 2014 annexation of Crimea that was blocking clean water from reaching the 2 million inhabitants there. The water shortages in Crimea had become a major source of tension.

Still, Putin faced growing discontent and protests inside Russia and there were chaotic scenes on Sunday in St. Petersburg as police hauled off protesters angry at their country's attack on a neighboring country with deep historic ties to Russia and the loss of bridges to the West.

Deverell, the former British commander, said the future for Putin and Ukraine are highly uncertain.

“I'm a bit baffled,” he said about Putin's extreme move. “I think Putin may well have enough troops to take control of large swaths of the country to bring to the end direct military confrontation, but I just can't see how he has enough troops to maintain that control across a country of 44 million people, especially because the people will never forgive him and lots of other countries will likely lend support to an insurgency.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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