Separatist leaders in Eastern Ukraine order troop mobilization amid Russia invasion fears
Biden says he's convinced Russia plans to invade Ukraine in coming days
Separatist leaders in Eastern Ukraine ordered a full military mobilization Saturday amid a spike of violence in the war-torn region and fears in the West that Russia might use the strife as a pretext for an invasion.
Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russia separatist government in Ukraine's Donetsk region, released a statement announcing a full troop mobilization and urging reservists to show up at military enlistment offices.
A similar announcement quickly followed from Leonid Pasechnik, separatist leader in the Luhansk region.
Pushilin cited an "immediate threat of aggression" from Ukrainian forces, accusations that Ukrainian officials vehemently denied earlier.
"I appeal to all the men in the republic who can hold weapons to defend their families, their children, wives, mothers," Pushilin said. "Together we will achieve the coveted victory that we all need."
More than 6,600 people had been evacuated from Donetsk, and some 25,000 people have left Luhansk, with 10,000 preparing to leave, separatist officials said.
The separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting for almost eight years. But the violence along the line of contact separating the two sides, including a humanitarian convoy hit by shelling, has risen in recent days. A car bombing Friday in the city of Donetsk also sharpened the sense of alarm.
With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops now posted around Ukraine's borders, the long-simmering separatist conflict could provide the spark for a broader attack.
Ukraine's military said shelling killed a soldier Saturday in the government-held part of the Donetsk region and that separatist forces were placing artillery in residential areas to try and provoke a response.
On Friday, the rebels began evacuating civilians from the conflict zone with an announcement that appeared to be part of their and Moscow's efforts to paint Ukraine as the aggressor.
Biden reiterates sanctions threat
In an ominous assessment, U.S. President Joe Biden said he was now "convinced" Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine and assault the capital, Kyiv.
Biden, who for weeks had said the U.S. was not sure if Putin had made the final decision, said his judgment had changed, citing American intelligence.
"As of this moment, I'm convinced he's made the decision," Biden said. "We have reason to believe that." He reiterated that the assault could occur in the "coming days."
On Saturday morning, U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris warned Russia on Saturday that it will face "unprecedented" financial costs if it invades Ukraine and predicted that such an attack would draw European allies closer to the United States.
"Let me be clear, can say with absolute certainty: If Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States, together with our allies and partners, will impose significant, and unprecedented economic costs," Harris said at the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany.
The Kremlin has announced massive nuclear drills, and Putin pledged to protect Russia's national interests against what it sees as encroaching Western threats.
As a further indication that the Russians continue preparations for a potential invasion, a U.S. defence official said an estimated 40 to 50 per cent of the ground forces deployed in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border have moved into attack positions closer to the border.
That shift has been underway for about a week, other officials have said, and does not necessarily mean Putin has decided to begin an invasion. The defence official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. military assessments.
The official also said the number of Russian ground units known as battalion tactical groups in the border area had grown to as many as 125, up from 83 two weeks ago. Each group has 750 to 1,000 soldiers.
Lines of communication remain open: The U.S. and Russian defence chiefs spoke Friday. And U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed to meet next week.
Immediate worries focused on Eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russia rebels since 2014 in a conflict that has killed some 14,000 people. With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops now posted around Ukraine's borders, the long-simmering separatist conflict could provide the spark for a broader attack.
Fears of such escalation intensified amid Friday's violence. A bombing struck a car outside the main government building in the major eastern city of Donetsk, according to an Associated Press journalist there. The head of the separatists' forces, Denis Sinenkov, said the car was his, the Interfax news agency reported.
There were no reports of casualties and no independent confirmation of the circumstances of the blast. Shelling and shooting are common along the line that separates Ukrainian forces and the rebels, but targeted violence is unusual in rebel-held cities.
However, the explosion and the announced evacuations were in line with U.S. warnings of so-called false-flag attacks that Russia would use to justify an invasion.
Adding to the tensions, two explosions shook the rebel-controlled city of Luhansk early Saturday. The Luhansk Information Center said one of the blasts was in a natural gas main and cited witnesses as saying the other was at a vehicle service station. There was no immediate word on injuries or a cause. Luhansk officials blamed a gas main explosion earlier in the week on sabotage.
Overall, monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reported more than 600 explosions in the war-torn east of Ukraine on Friday.
Civilians evacuated to Russia
Separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions that form Ukraine's industrial heartland known as the Donbas announced they were evacuating civilians to Russia.
Pushilin, the head of the Donetsk rebel government, said women, children and the elderly will be evacuated first, and that Russia has prepared facilities to accommodate them. He alleged in a video statement that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was going to order an imminent offensive in the area.
Metadata from two videos posted by the separatists announcing the evacuation show that the files were created two days ago, The Associated Press confirmed. U.S. authorities have alleged that the Kremlin's disinformation campaign could include staged, prerecorded videos.
Authorities began moving children from an orphanage in Donetsk, and other residents boarded buses for Russia. Long lines formed at gas stations as more people prepared to leave on their own.
Putin ordered his emergencies minister to fly to the Rostov region bordering Ukraine to help organize the exodus and ordered the government to offer a payment of 10,000 rubles (about $165 Cdn) to each evacuee, equivalent to about half of an average monthly salary in the war-ravaged Donbas region.
By Saturday morning, more than 6,600 residents of the rebel-controlled areas were evacuated to Russia, according to separatist officials, who have announced plans to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people.
The explosions and the announced evacuations were in line with U.S. warnings of so-called false-flag attacks that Russia could use to justify an invasion.
Shelling hits UNHCR convoy
Around the volatile line of contact, a United Nations humanitarian convoy came under rebel shelling in the Luhansk region, Ukraine's military chief said. No casualties were reported. Rebels denied involvement and accused Ukraine of staging a provocation.
Ukraine denied planning any offensive.
"We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only," Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the threat to global security is "more complex and probably higher" than during the Cold War. He told a security conference in Munich that a small mistake or miscommunication between major powers could have catastrophic consequences.
Russia announced this week that it was pulling back forces from vast military exercises, but U.S. officials said they saw no sign of a pullback and instead observed more troops moving toward the border with Ukraine.
In other developments, the White House and the U.K. formally blamed Russia for recent cyberattacks targeting Ukraine's defense ministry and major banks. The announcement was the most pointed attribution of responsibility for the intrusions, which barraged websites with junk data to make them unreachable. Russia rejected the accusations.
The Kremlin sent a reminder to the world of its nuclear might, announcing drills of its nuclear forces for the weekend. Putin will monitor the exercise Saturday that will involve multiple practice missile launches.
Asked about Western warnings of a possible Russian invasion on Wednesday that did not materialize, Putin said: "There are so many false claims, and constantly reacting to them is more trouble than it's worth."
"We are doing what we consider necessary and will keep doing so," he said. "We have clear and precise goals conforming to national interests."