MOSCOW, Russia – Russia’s Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine within days, US President Joe Biden said on Friday, February 18, after separatists backed by Moscow told civilians to leave breakaway regions on buses, a move the West fears is part of a pretext for an attack.
In one of the worst post-Cold War crises, Russia wants to stop Kyiv joining NATO and accuses the West of hysteria, saying it has no plans to invade, while the United States and allies are adamant the military build-up continues.
Warning sirens blared in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk on Friday after rebel leaders there announced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people to Russia.
“We have reason to believe the Russian forces are planning to and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week, in the coming days,” Biden told reporters at the White House, adding that Kyiv would be a target.
“As of this moment, I am convinced that he has made the decision.”
Late on Friday, Ukraine’s military intelligence said Russian special forces had planted explosives at social infrastructure facilities in Donetsk, and it urged residents to stay at home. The Russian Federal Security Service did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Citing correspondents on the ground, Russian news agencies later reported that two explosions hit Luhansk, one of the main cities in Ukraine’s breakaway People’s Republic of Luhansk, and a section of a gas pipeline in the area caught fire.
Earlier, without providing evidence, Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader in Donetsk, accused Ukraine of preparing to attack the two regions soon – an accusation Kyiv said was false.
Asked about the evacuation, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it was a “good example” of what Washington fears.
“We have…long predicted for all of you that the Russians would take part in pretexts or steps that would lay a predicate for either war or to create confusion or spread misinformation on the ground,” she told reporters.
Hours after the evacuation announcement, a jeep exploded outside a rebel government building in the city of Donetsk.
Reuters journalists saw the vehicle surrounded by shrapnel, a wheel thrown away by the blast. Russian media said it belonged to a separatist official.
Many families in the mostly Russian-speaking area have already been granted citizenship by Moscow and within hours, some were boarding buses at an evacuation point in Donetsk, where authorities said 700,000 people would leave.
Irina Lysanova, 22, said she was packing to travel with her pensioner mother: “Mama is a panicker,” she said. Her father, Konstantin, 62, was not going. “This is my motherland,” he said.
The evacuation started after the conflict zone saw what sources described as the most intense artillery bombardment for years on Friday.
Ukraine was the most painful loss for Russia of the 14 former republics under its control prior to the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
Russian-backed rebels seized a swathe of eastern Ukraine in 2014, the same year that Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region. Kyiv says that more than 14,000 people have since died in the conflict in the east.
As the Kremlin shows off its military capacity on several fronts, Putin was to supervise exercises of its strategic nuclear missile forces on Saturday.
‘Shooting everyone and everything’
Russia has released footage to show it is withdrawing troops from the border but the United States instead believes there has been a ramp-up to between 169,000 to 190,000 troops, from 100,000 at the end of January.
New helicopters and a battle group deployment of tanks, armored personnel carriers and support equipment have deployed in Russia, near the border, according to US-based Maxar Technologies, which tracks developments with satellite imagery.
The Kremlin has tens of thousands of troops staging exercises in Belarus, north of Ukraine, that are due to end on Sunday. Belarus’ leader Alexander Lukashenko met Putin on Friday, saying beforehand the soldiers could stay as long as needed.
Western countries fear a conflict on a scale unseen in Europe at least since the Yugoslav and Chechen wars of the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands died and millions fled.
A diplomatic source with years of experience of the conflict described Friday’s shelling as the most intense since major combat there ended with a 2015 ceasefire. “They are shooting – everyone and everything.”
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said she did not think a fully-fledged invasion was the most likely scenario but that Russia could carry out a coup in Ukraine, attack critical infrastructure or instigate violence it would blame on Kyiv.
Kyiv also said a full-scale invasion was unlikely.
Since toppling a pro-Russian president, Ukraine has staged joint military exercises with NATO and taken delivery of weapons including US Javelin missiles and Turkish drones.
Putin says Ukraine’s growing ties with the alliance could make it a launchpad for missiles targeting Russia.
As the crisis deepens, the West is also weighing its non-military options.
Banning Russia from the SWIFT financial system is unlikely to be included in an initial sanctions package in the event of an invasion, a White House official said on Friday, confirming a Reuters report.
How allies should respond to aggressions beyond an all-out invasion is far from agreed, U.S. and European officials said amid differences within the EU.
“Those closest to Russia, such as Hungary, will be against any sanctions short of a military invasion,” according to one senior diplomat.
Putin’s nuclear drills
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin launched exercises by strategic nuclear missile forces on Saturday and Washington said Russian troops massed near Ukraine’s border were “poised to strike”.
As Western nations fear the start of one the worst conflicts since the Cold War, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Russian forces were beginning to “uncoil and move closer” to the border with its former Soviet neighbor.
“We hope he steps back from the brink of conflict,” he told a news conference on a visit to Lithuania, saying an invasion of Ukraine was not inevitable.
Russia ordered the military build-up while demanding NATO stop Ukraine ever joining the alliance but says predictions it is planning to invade Ukraine are wrong and dangerous. It says it is now pulling back while Washington and allies insist the build-up is mounting.
Russian-backed separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine earlier declared a full military mobilization, a day after ordering women and children to evacuate to Russia, citing the threat of an imminent attack by Ukrainian forces.
Kyiv flatly denied the accusation and Washington said it was part of Russia’s plan to create a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine.
Multiple explosions could be heard on Saturday morning in the north of the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, a Reuters witness said. The origin was not immediately clear. Ukraine said earlier that one of its soldiers had been killed.
US President Joe Biden, who has given regular warnings of an impending invasion, said on Friday he now believes the capital Kyiv would be targeted by Russia but that he does not think Putin is even remotely contemplating using nuclear weapons.
The exercises by Russia’s nuclear forces on Saturday involve the launch of ballistic and cruise missiles, the defense ministry said. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the exercises were part of a regular training process and Putin was likely to take part from a “situation centre”.
Russia’s Ria news agency quoted the Kremlin on Saturday as saying the exercises had started. – Rappler.com