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Russian-backed separatists order troop mobilization as Putin oversees nuclear exercise


Pro-Russian separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine ordered a full military mobilization on Saturday, amid a spike in violence that raised fears Moscow is considering using an escalation of the conflict as a pretext to invade.

The announcements came ahead of planned large-scale exercises involving Russian nuclear forces, overseen by President Vladimir Putin, providing a timely reminder of the country’s nuclear might, as Europe faces its most serious security crisis since the cold War. Ballistic and cruise missiles were launched from land, air and sea, the Kremilin said in a statement on Saturday.

In eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting government forces since 2014, Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’, has urged reservists to report to military enlistment offices in a video posted on the chat. Telegram app on Saturday.

In nearby Luhansk, Leonid Pasechnik, leader of the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic of Luhansk”, also signed a decree calling for “full combat readiness”.

The separatists control an enclave the size of New Jersey, where its Russian-speaking population of about 2 million uses the Russian ruble and hundreds of thousands have Russian passports.

Their statements came as the evacuation of civilians from rebel-held territories in these areas to neighboring Russia continued.

At an evacuation point from a market in Donetsk, Oksana Feoktisova, 38, boarded a bus with her 9-year-old son and mother. They were accompanied by Feoktisova’s brother, Yuri, who remained in Donetsk.

“They don’t let men through, and frankly, I wouldn’t go anyway,” Yuri told Reuters. “I’m a reservist anyway. I am a gunner by birth… I am loyal to my state, to my people.

An elderly woman and a boy look out the window of a bus, waiting to be evacuated to Russia, in Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, on Saturday.Alexei Alexandrov / AP

The evacuations come amid a spike in shelling in the region that has fueled fresh global alarm. The Ukrainian military said a soldier was killed on Saturday as a result of shrapnel received during the explosions.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said on Friday they recorded 648 ceasefire violations in the Lugansk region and 222 in Donetsk. As a policy, the OSCE does not tend to assign blame.

Despite US concerns over his departure from the country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will travel to Munich on Saturday for a security conference, his office said in a statement. There he will meet with Vice President Kamala Harris and other Western leaders before returning to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

In a speech at the conference, Harris said “the foundation of European security is directly threatened in Ukraine.” She added that the United States “will impose significant and unprecedented economic costs” on Russia in the event of an invasion.

“Nations have the right to choose their own alliances,” she said, adding that “national borders should not be changed by force.”

His speech came after President Joe Biden told reporters on Friday that he believed his Putin had already “made the decision” to invade Ukraine, but stressed that Moscow should always “choose diplomacy”.

“It’s not too late to defuse and get back to the negotiating table,” Biden said.

Moscow has denied any invasion plans and instead tried to portray Ukraine as the aggressor. He said on Friday he was closely monitoring the escalating shelling in eastern Ukraine, describing the situation as potentially very dangerous.

But the United States has warned for weeks that Russia could use false flag operations, including protests and unrest, as an excuse to invade Ukraine. Along with its Western allies, he estimates that Russia has massed up to 190,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders.

The Kremlin now has between 40 and 50 percent of its military forces around Ukraine in attack position, a US defense official told NBC News on Friday. The troops are still several kilometers from the border, the official said.

Oksana Parafeniuk, Veronika Melkozerova, Associated press and Reuters contributed.

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