MUNICH — As shelling hit towns in eastern Ukraine on Saturday and civilians boarded buses to evacuate the region, Russia put on a spectacular display of military theatre, gunfire and bombardment. test of ballistic and cruise missiles to remind the West that a conflict over Ukraine could quickly escalate.
In eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists claimed, without evidence, that Ukraine was planning a large-scale attack, separatist leaders urged women and children to evacuate and able-bodied men to prepare for battle.
While Western leaders dismissed the idea that Ukraine would launch an attack while surrounded by Russian forces, the panic sparked was an ominous sign of what the United States has warned could be a pretext for a Russian invasion. President Biden said Friday that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has already decided to invade Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to Munich on Saturday to bolster Western support for his threatened country.
Western leaders displayed a united front there and made repeated calls for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. Vice President Kamala Harris called the crisis a “defining moment” for European security and the defense of democratic values.
But Mr Putin has sent his own message, presiding over the nuclear-capable missile tests as part of what Russia insists are just military exercises around Ukraine and not the harbinger of an invasion.
Tensions between the United States and Russia have not been this high since the Cold War, and Saturday’s Russian nuclear exercises appeared carefully timed to deter the West from direct military involvement in Ukraine.
In Munich, Ms. Harris warned that if Russia invaded Ukraine, the United States and its allies would target not only financial institutions and technology exports to Russia, but also “those who are complicit and those who help and are leading this unprovoked invasion”.
“Russia continues to pretend it is ready for talks, while narrowing the avenues of diplomacy,” she said. “Their actions just don’t match their words.”
In Ukraine, shelling has intensified in the east, where Russian-backed separatists have battled government forces in recent days.
Artillery fire has intensified along the entire length of the frontline, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said on Saturday. The shelling was roughly double the level of the previous two days, the ministry said.
Several intense artillery barrages targeted a pocket of government-controlled territory around the city of Svitlodarsk, a location that has worried security analysts for weeks over its proximity to dangerous industrial infrastructure, including storage tanks for toxic gases.
“I have a little baby,” said Nadya Lapygina, a resident of Staryi Aidar, one of dozens of towns hit by artillery and mortar fire on the northern border of the breakaway Luhansk region. “You have no idea how scary it is to hide it from the shelling.”
There were also alarming signs of what US officials described as possible precursors to a pretext for a Russian invasion. The leaders of the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine on Saturday appealed to all men in the territory they control to sign up to fight.
Separatists, seen by the West as Russian proxies, on Friday called on 700,000 women and children to evacuate the area, saying Ukrainian government forces were planning a full-scale attack.
On Saturday, Denis Pushilin, the leader of a pro-Russian breakaway region, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, called on all able-bodied men to prepare for battle.
“I call on all men in the republic who are able to hold arms in their hands, to defend their families, their children, their wives and their mothers,” he wrote on social media.
The Kiev government denied any plan of attack, and the United States dismissed the accusation as a lie intended to give Russia a pretext to launch an invasion.
So did Germany’s new Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who dismissed Russian claims of Kiev’s ‘genocide’ in the eastern Donbass region as ‘really ridiculous, to be very clear on that’. .
A Russian entry into Ukraine would be a “serious mistake” that would have immediate and serious “political, economic and strategic” consequences, Scholz said at the Munich Security Conference. “Nothing justifies the deployment of more than 100,000 Russian troops around Ukraine. No country should be another’s backyard.
Similar warnings have been issued by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. She promised a serious set of financial and economic sanctions against Moscow in the event of aggression, which “could cost Russia a prosperous future”.
Even Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in a strikingly distancing comment from Russia, said each country’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity should be safeguarded. “Ukraine is no exception,” he said during a virtual appearance at the Munich conference. But he also urged the United States to stop making “hyperbolic warnings” about Russian intentions.
Separatist warnings of an impending attack have led to real scenes of chaos at bus depots in eastern Ukraine.
Inna Shalpa, a resident of the separatist town of Ilovaisk in the Donetsk region, had no idea where the Russian bus she and her three children were going was going, but she was ready to accept the uncertainty to flee an expected war.
“We were mostly worried about the children,” said Ms Shalpa, 35, amid a frantic effort to distribute the refugees among buses, parked outside Russia’s first train station across the border.
The Russian missile tests, three ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, were designed to have media impact. Mr Putin watched the display from a Kremlin command center, accompanied by President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, whose government brutally suppressed dissent after a disputed election and is considering letting Russia base some of its arsenal nuclear on its territory.
The test was technologically unremarkable, with videos released by Moscow showing a fighter jet launching a cruise missile from the air, a mobile launcher firing an intercontinental ballistic missile and a sea-launched hypersonic missile.
While the weapons demonstrated on Saturday have already been shown, two of the three were designed to evade US missile defenses. The Kremlin said the test was designed to show Russia’s “triad” – launches from land, air and sea – which mirrors the range of weapons in the US arsenal.
The heightened sense of urgency expressed by Washington was not immediately apparent in Kyiv, although Mr. Biden explicitly identified the capital as a Russian target. The idea of Russian forces storming what is currently a calm and peaceful town was hard to imagine for many people there.
“Russia will do something,” said Sofiya Soyedka, 32, a resident of Kiev, shortly after Mr Biden’s dire warning on Friday.
But invading Kiev? “No way,” she said.
Some of the officials gathered in Munich also expressed doubts, suggesting that Mr Putin might prefer longer pressure on Mr Zelensky and Ukraine, creating provocations and anxiety and continuing to damage Ukraine’s economy. Such tactics, they suggested, would make it harder for the Europeans to impose harsh sanctions on Russia and could damage the transatlantic unity on this issue that American and European diplomats have so painstakingly built.
Mr Biden’s televised address on Friday night was the first time the President has said he now considers, based on intelligence and troop movements, that Mr Putin has decided on a major invasion of Ukraine “in the coming week, in the next few days”, adding that “we believe they will target the capital of Ukraine, Kiev, a city of 2.8 million innocent people”.
US officials said the president’s assessment was based in part on new intelligence showing that nearly half of Russia’s 150,000 forces had left the scene to get into battle formation and could launch a full-scale invasion in A few days.
The force comprises 120 to 125 battalion tactical groups, up from the mid-1980s at the start of the month. And some of the forces are Russian reservists who would constitute an occupation force after an invasion, the officials said. The officials requested anonymity to discuss the government’s assessments.
The report was provided by Andrew E. Kramer from Severodonetsk, Ukraine; Roger Cohen, David E. Sanger and Katrin Bennhold from Munich; Marc Santora from Kyiv, Ukraine; Valerie Hopkins from Novoluhanske, Ukraine; and Ivan Nechepurenko from Rostov-on-Don, Russia.