Ukrainian rebels mobilize troops amid Russia fears of aggression

MOSCOW – Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine ordered a total military mobilization on Saturday amid rising violence in the war-torn region and in the West concerns that Russia could use conflict as a pretext for an invasion.

Denis Pushilin, head of the pro-Russian separatist government in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, announced the mobilization of the entire army. A similar announcement soon followed from his counterpart in the Luhansk region.

Pushilin cited “immediate threat of invasion” from Ukrainian forces, accusations that Ukrainian officials had vehemently denied earlier.

“I appeal to all men in the republic who can take up arms to protect their families, children, wives, mothers,” Pushilin said. “Together, we will achieve the coveted victory we all need.”

The separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting for almost eight years. However, violence along the line separating the two sides, including a humanitarian convoy being shelled, has increased in recent days. A car bomb attack on Friday in the city of Donetsk also raised a sense of alarm.

With some 150,000 Russian troops currently stationed around the Ukrainian border, the lingering separatist conflict could spark a broader offensive.

Ukraine’s military said shelling killed a soldier Saturday in the government-held Donetsk region and that separatists were placing artillery in residential areas to try to provoke a response.

On Friday, rebels began evacuating civilians to Russia with an announcement that appeared to be part of their and Moscow’s efforts to label Ukraine an aggressor.

US President Joe Biden said late Friday he was now “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had decided to invade Ukraine and attack the capital Kyiv.

Biden, who for weeks has said that the United States is uncertain whether Putin is determined to send troops into the neighboring country, cited American intelligence sources as the source of his ominous assessment.

“At this point, I believe he’s made the decision,” Biden said. “We have reason to believe that.” He reiterated that the attack could happen in the “coming days.”

Meanwhile, Russia conducted major nuclear exercises on Saturday. The Kremlin said Putin, who is committed to defending Russia’s national interests against what it sees as an encroaching on Western threats, was watching the drills with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko from the room. situation in the Kremlin.

Notably, the exercise is planned with the participation of the Black Sea Fleet based in Crimea. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula after taking it from Ukraine in 2014.

Underscoring Western fears of an impending invasion, one US defense official said an estimated 40% to 50% of ground forces deployed in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border had moved. into attack positions closer to the border.

The change, other officials said, has been underway for about a week and does not necessarily mean Putin has decided to initiate an invasion. The defense official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments of the US military.

The official also said that the number of Russian ground units known as battalion-level combat groups in the border region had increased to 125, up from 83 two weeks ago. Each group has between 750 and 1,000 soldiers.

US Vice President Kamala Harris, who was attending a security conference in Munich, Germany on Saturday, warned Russia that it would face “unprecedented” financial costs if it attacked Ukraine and pressed force an invasion would draw European allies closer to the United States.

The President of the European Union’s executive committee, Ursula von der Leyen, said the EU had prepared substantial additional sanctions against Russia in coordination with the US, UK and Canada, including restrictions. access to financial markets.

“The Kremlin’s dangerous thinking, rooted in its dark past, could cost Russia a prosperous future,” von der Leyen said at the Munich Security Conference.

The lines of communication between Moscow and the West remain open: the US and Russian defense ministers spoke on Friday. French President Emmanuel Macron scheduled a phone call with Putin for Sunday. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have agreed to meet next week.

The immediate worries focus on eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been battling pro-Russian rebels since 2014 in a conflict that has left some 14,000 people dead. Violations of the 2015 truce, including shelling and shooting along the lines of communication, were common.

However, the violence has escalated in recent days. A bomb blast hit a car outside the main government building in the rebel-held city of Donetsk on Friday. The head of the separatist forces, Denis Sinenkov, said the car was his, Interfax news agency reported. Targeted violence is unusual in rebel-held cities.

Adding to the tension, two explosions rocked the rebel-controlled city of Luhansk early Saturday. The Luhansk Information Center said one of the explosions was in a natural gas pipeline. The center quoted witnesses as saying the other person was at a vehicle service station.

There were no immediate reports of casualties and no independent confirmation of the circumstances of the three explosions. Luhansk officials blamed a major gas explosion earlier in the week on sabotage.

By Saturday morning, separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which form Ukraine’s industrial hub known as the Donbas, said thousands of residents of rebel-controlled areas had been evacuated to Russia. .

More than 6,600 people have been evacuated from Donetsk, and about 25,000 have left Luhansk, with 10,000 preparing to leave, separatist officials said.

Separatist officials announced plans to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people on Friday. Russia has issued about 700,000 passports to residents of rebel-held territories. Claims that Russian citizens are under threat can be used to justify military action.

Pushilin, head of the rebel government of Donetsk, said women, children and the elderly would go first and that Russia had prepared vehicles for them. Pushilin alleged in a video statement that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would order an imminent attack in the region.

Metadata from two videos posted by separatists announcing the evacuation shows that the files were created two days ago, the AP news agency confirmed. US authorities allege that the Kremlin’s attempt to pretext the invasion may have included staged, pre-recorded videos.

Authorities began transferring children from an orphanage in Donetsk, and other residents on buses bound for Russia. Long lines formed at gas stations as many people prepared to leave alone.

Authorities in Russia’s Rostov region have declared a state of emergency because of the influx of people. Media reports on Saturday morning described turmoil at several summer camps designated to accommodate people from eastern Ukraine.

Reports said there were long lines of buses and hundreds of people waiting in the cold for hours at a time for temporary shelter without food or bathroom amenities. Some camps are said to be full.

Putin ordered the Russian government to provide 10,000 rubles (about $130) for each evacuee, an amount equivalent to about half the average monthly salary in the war-torn Donbas region.

Around the volatile line of communication, a UN humanitarian convoy was shelled by rebels on Friday in the Luhansk region, the head of Ukraine’s military said. No casualties were reported. The rebels deny involvement and accuse Ukraine of staging a provocation.

Ukraine rejected the attack plan.

“We are fully committed to resolving conflicts only diplomatically,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.

Ukraine’s ruling party Servant of the People repeated its position in an online statement on Saturday, rejecting “the possibility of liberating temporarily occupied territories by military means” and accused Russia of “trying to create a pretext for an all-out invasion of Ukraine.”


Jim Heintz in Moscow, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Aamer Madhani in Munich contributed to this story.

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