KYIV, UKRAINE — Russia extended military exercises near Ukraine’s northern borders on Sunday amid growing fears that two days of sustained shelling along the line of contact between soldiers and Russa-backed separatists in the eastern Ukraine did not trigger an invasion.
The drills, which were originally scheduled to end on Sunday, have brought a large contingent of Russian forces into neighboring Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north. The presence of Russian troops has raised fears that they could be used to sweep the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
The announcement came from Belarus’ defense minister, who said the two countries would “continue to test response forces”.
Western leaders have warned that Russia is about to attack its neighbor, which is surrounded on three sides by around 150,000 Russian troops, fighter jets and equipment. Russia held nuclear drills on Saturday as well as conventional drills in Belarus, and has ongoing naval drills off the Black Sea coast.
The United States and many European countries have been claiming for months that Russia is trying to create pretexts to invade. They threatened massive and immediate sanctions if that was the case.
A senior European Union official, Charles Michel, said on Sunday that “the big question remains: does the Kremlin want dialogue?”
“We cannot always offer an olive branch while Russia carries out missile tests and continues to gather troops,” Michel, the president of the European Council, said at the Munich security conference. He said: “One thing is certain: if there is further military aggression, we will respond with massive sanctions.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to choose a place where the two leaders could meet to try to resolve the crisis. Russia has denied invasion plans.
“Ukraine will continue to follow only the diplomatic path in the interests of a peaceful settlement,” Zelensky said Saturday at an international security conference in Munich, Germany. There was no immediate response from the Kremlin.
Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine on Saturday ordered a full military mobilization and sent more civilians to Russia, which has issued around 700,000 passports to residents of rebel-held territories. Claims that Russian citizens are in danger could be used to justify military action.
Officials in the separatist territories said Ukrainian forces launched several artillery attacks over the past day and two civilians were killed in an unsuccessful assault on a village near the Russian border.
US Vice President Kamala Harris on Sunday stressed the importance of the moment facing Europe.
“We talk about the potential for war in Europe,” Harris said at the Munich Security Conference. “It’s been over 70 years, and in those 70 years…there has been peace and security.”
The Ukrainian leader criticized the United States and other Western countries for withholding new sanctions against Russia. Zelenskyy, in comments ahead of the conference, also questioned the West’s refusal to allow Ukraine to join NATO immediately.
Putin demanded that NATO not take Ukraine as a member. Harris backed the U.S. decision to drop sanctions, but said she wouldn’t second guess Zelensky’s “desires for his country.”
In fresh signs of fear that a war could start in days, Germany and Austria have told their citizens to leave Ukraine. German airline Lufthansa has canceled flights to the capital, Kyiv, and to Odessa, a Black Sea port that could be a key target during an invasion.
The NATO Liaison Office in Kyiv announced that it was transferring staff to Brussels and the city of Lviv in western Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden said Friday evening that based on the latest US intelligence, he was now “convinced” that Putin has decided to invade Ukraine in the coming days and attack the capital.
A US military official said about 40-50% of those ground forces moved to attack positions closer to the border. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal US assessments, said the change had been in the works for about a week and did not necessarily mean Putin had opted for an invasion.
The lines of communication between Moscow and the West remain open: US and Russian defense chiefs spoke on Friday. French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Putin on Sunday for nearly two hours ahead of a call with the Ukrainian president. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have agreed to meet next week.
Immediate concerns centered on eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russian rebels since 2014 in a conflict that has claimed some 14,000 lives.
Ukraine and separatist leaders traded escalating accusations. Russia said on Saturday that at least two shells fired from a government-held part of eastern Ukraine had landed across the border, but Ukraine’s foreign minister dismissed the claim as “a false statement”.
Senior Ukrainian military officials came under bombardment while touring the frontline of the nearly eight-year-old separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. Officials fled to a bomb shelter before leaving the area, according to an Associated Press reporter who was on tour.
The army on Sunday closed a key checkpoint leading to the separatist region after it was repeatedly shelled.
Elsewhere on the front lines, Ukrainian soldiers said they were under orders not to return fire. Zahar Leshushun, peering into the distance with a periscope, had been following the news all day from a trench where he is posted near the town of Zolote.
“At the moment, we are not responding to their fire because…”, the soldier began to explain before being interrupted by the sound of an incoming shell. ” Oh ! They are shooting at us now. They aim for the command post.
Sporadic violence has erupted for years along the line separating Ukrainian forces from Russian-backed separatists, but the spike seen in recent days is an order of magnitude larger than anything recently recorded by observers international: nearly 1,500 explosions recorded in 24 hours.
Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russian separatist government in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, cited an “immediate threat of aggression” from Ukrainian forces in his announcement of a call to arms. Ukrainian officials have vehemently denied plans to take rebel-held areas by force.
“I appeal to all men in the republic who can hold arms to defend their families, their children, their wives, their mothers,” Pushilin said. “Together we will achieve the coveted victory we all need.”
A similar statement followed from his counterpart from the Luhansk region. The rebels began evacuating civilians to Russia on Friday with an announcement that appeared to be part of their and Moscow’s efforts to portray Ukraine as the aggressor.
Metadata from two videos released by the separatists announcing the evacuation of civilians to Russia show the files were created two days ago, the AP confirmed. US authorities have alleged that the Kremlin’s efforts to come up with a pretext for the invasion could include staged and pre-recorded videos.
The Ukrainian army said on Saturday that two of its soldiers had been killed by fire from the separatist side.
Authorities in Russia’s Rostov region, which borders eastern Ukraine, have declared a state of emergency due to the influx of evacuees. Media reports on Saturday described chaos in some of the camps designated to house them.
Putin ordered the Russian government to offer 10,000 rubles (about US$130) to each evacuee, an amount equivalent to about half of an average monthly salary in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s breakaway regions, like much of the east of the country, are predominantly Russian-speaking. Putin repeated the allegations of a “genocide” there on Tuesday, explaining the need to protect them.
One of the evacuees, a Donetsk resident who identified himself only as Vyacheslav, blamed the Ukrainian government for his fate.
“Let them calm down,” he said. “It’s our fault that we don’t want to speak Ukrainian, right? »
Jim Heintz reported from Moscow. Mstyslav Chernov in Zolote in Ukraine, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Aamer Madhani in Munich, Robert Burns and Darlene Superville in Washington, Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius in Lithuania and Yuras Karmanau in Kiev contributed to this story.
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