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Fresh shelling in eastern Ukraine stoke fears of Russian invasion

Ukraine on Friday accused Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country of further ceasefire violations, as the United States and its allies warned that Moscow could use a spike in shelling as a pretext to an invasion.

As the escalation in eastern Ukraine fuels new global alarm, the State Department said late Thursday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Europe next week. – provided that Russia does not attack its neighbor first.

In an address to the United Nations on Thursday, Blinken detailed Washington’s fears about what Russian President Vladimir Putin might be planning. He echoed President Joe Biden’s dire assessment of the Russian threat as hopes for a diplomatic solution to the crisis faded.

Biden will host a Friday call with transatlantic leaders to discuss “Russia’s military troop buildup on Ukraine’s border and our continued efforts to pursue deterrence and diplomacy,” a House official said. White.

Ukrainian government troops have been fighting separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014 – when Moscow annexed Crimea and backed separatist forces – in a simmering conflict that has claimed some 14,000 lives.

It has been closely watched over fears it could become a potential source of escalation in the wider crisis. And this week, as Russia has massed up to 150,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders and the West says it has seen no signs of a claimed withdrawal, there has been an upsurge in violence.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said that as of 9 a.m. local time Friday (2 a.m. ET), its forces had recorded 20 ceasefire violations, including artillery, mortar and machine gun fire.

Ukraine said the separatists were “placing their artillery systems near residential buildings” in the hope that Kiev forces would retaliate.

“We are constantly facing provocations, bombings, cyberattacks, dangerous aviation maneuvers, disabling of mobile communications,” Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told the country’s parliament on Friday. “Our task is not to do what the Russian Federation pushes us to do – to fight back, but to keep a cool head. Because the provocations will not stop.”

A Ukrainian soldier on the front line with Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk region on Wednesday.Anatolii Stepanov / AFP – Getty Images

On the other side, separatist forces in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk reported renewed shelling by Ukrainian forces along the tense contact line on Friday morning. Ukrainian military leader Valerii Zaluzhnyi replied that “our actions are purely defensive”.

Sporadic firing in eastern Ukraine is not unusual, but the apparent uptick comes amid Western warnings that Russia could stage a ‘false flag’ operation or use a surge in violence there to justify a new military incursion.

“We have reason to believe they are engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to come in,” Biden said Thursday. “Every indication we have is that they are ready to enter Ukraine and attack Ukraine.”

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said they recorded nearly 600 ceasefire violations in total on Thursday, a huge spike from recent months.

The OSCE also said its drones were unable to operate, likely due to signal jamming, and mobile phone networks were sporadically going down in the area.

As a policy, the OSCE does not tend to assign blame. Russia has always denied that it intends to invade Ukraine.

Associated press and Reuters contributed.

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