Russian holds nuclear drills amid Western fears of imminent attack on Ukraine

Russia held strategic nuclear exercises overseen by President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, as Washington accused Russian troops amassed near Ukraine's border of moving forward and being "poised to strike."

Ukrainian president calls for new security guarantees for his country

This photo is taken from video provided by the Russian Defence Ministry Press Service on Saturday that it says shows a Russian Iskander-K missile launched during a military exercise at a training ground in Russia. (Russian Defence Ministry Press Service/The Associated Press)

The latest:

  • Russian forces near Ukraine starting to 'uncoil,' says U.S.
  • Separatists in Eastern Ukraine call for military mobilization.
  • Kremlin says Putin starts nuclear drills, no invasion plan.

Russia held strategic nuclear exercises overseen by President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, as Washington accused Russian troops amassed near Ukraine's border of moving forward and being "poised to strike."

With Western fears of war rising, foreign ministers from G7 nations said they had seen no evidence that Russia is reducing military activity near Ukraine's borders and remained "gravely concerned" about the situation.

After Kyiv and Moscow traded accusations over new shelling incidents near the border, France and Germany urged all or some of their citizens in Ukraine to leave, and U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said Russian forces were beginning to "uncoil and move closer" to the border.

"We hope he [Putin] steps back from the brink of conflict," Austin told a news conference in Lithuania, saying an invasion of Ukraine was not inevitable.

Ukrainian troops patrol at the front line outside the town of Novoluhanske, in Eastern Ukraine, on Saturday. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia ordered the military buildup while demanding that NATO prevent Ukraine from ever joining the alliance, but it says Western predictions that it is planning to invade Ukraine are wrong and dangerous. Moscow says it is now pulling back, but Washington and allies say the buildup is mounting.

Washington and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization say Moscow's main demands are non-starters, but in Ukraine fears are growing over Putin's plans and the West's ability to prevent a Russian invasion.

Venting his frustration at a security conference in Munich, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the global security architecture was "almost broken." He urged the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, as well as Germany and Turkey, to meet to draw up new security guarantees for his country.

"The rules that the world agreed on decades ago no longer work. They do not keep up with new threats. Not effective for overcoming them. This is a cough syrup when you need a coronavirus vaccine," he said.

World Bank president David Malpass told Zelensky on Saturday that the bank was readying funding to Ukraine of up to $350 million US.

Hypersonic and cruise missiles

The Kremlin said Russia had successfully test-launched hypersonic and cruise missiles at sea during the strategic nuclear exercises.

Putin observed the exercises on screens with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko from what the Kremlin called a "situation centre."

U.S. President Joe Biden said on Friday that he believed Putin would invade in the coming days, and Austin said the exercises were stoking concerns around the world.

G7 foreign ministers called on Russia "to choose the path of diplomacy, to de-escalate tensions, to substantively withdraw military forces from the proximity of Ukraine's borders and to fully abide by international commitments."

"As a first step, we expect Russia to implement the announced reduction of its military activities along Ukraine's borders. We have seen no evidence of this reduction," they said in a statement.

Zelensky said he had an "urgent" phone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron and discussed possible ways of immediate de-escalation and political-diplomatic settlement. Macron is due to speak with Putin on Sunday.

The nuclear drills follow manoeuvres by Russia's armed forces in the past four months that have included a buildup of troops — estimated by the West to number 150,000 or more — to the north, east and south of Ukraine.

PHOTOS | Russia launches massive drills of its nuclear forces: 

New helicopters and a battle group deployment of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and support equipment have deployed in Russia near the border, according to U.S.-based Maxar Technologies, which tracks developments with satellite imagery.

Moscow-based analysts said Saturday's exercises were aimed at sending a message to take Russia's demands for security guarantees from NATO seriously.

"Ignoring Russia's legitimate rights in this area adversely affects the stability not only on the European continent, but also in the world," Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted by his ministry as telling France's foreign minister by phone.

A NATO official said the alliance relocated staff from Kyiv to the western city of Lviv and to Brussels for safety reasons. The United States and other countries have moved diplomats to Lviv.

Shelling allegations

Russian-backed rebels seized a swath of Eastern Ukraine, and Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 after protests toppled Ukraine's pro-Russian leader. Kyiv says more than 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the east.

The separatist leaders in Eastern Ukraine have declared a full military mobilization after ordering women and children to evacuate to Russia, citing the threat of an imminent attack by Ukrainian forces, which Kyiv denied.

Kyiv and Western leaders say the mobilization, evacuation and increased shelling across the ceasefire line this week are part of a Russian plan to create a pretext for an invasion.

WATCH | Concerns shelling could be pretext for invasion by Russia: 

Concerns mount that shelling Eastern Ukraine could be pretext for Russia invasion

10 months ago
Duration 1:57
Shelling erupted Thursday in a region of Eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists, which the international community fears could be used as a pretext for an invasion.

Russia's FSB security service said two shells landed on Russian territory near the border, Russia's Tass news agency reported. One hit a building in Rostov region, but no one was hurt, it said.

Ukraine's military accused Russia of faking pictures of shells to make out they were Ukrainian, and said mercenaries had arrived in separatist-held Eastern Ukraine to stage provocations in collaboration with Russia's special services.

Ukraine's foreign minister demanded an independent international investigation of the alleged incidents, and the military said two soldiers had been killed in shelling by pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

PHOTOS | Evacuees transported out of rebel-held regions: 

The two Russian-backed, self-proclaimed republics in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions were hit by more than 1,400 explosions on Friday, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said. And almost 2,000 ceasefire violations were registered in the area by OSCE monitors on Saturday, a diplomatic source told Reuters.

Multiple explosions were heard overnight into Sunday in the center of the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk, a Reuters reporter said. The blasts' origin was not clear. There was no immediate comment from separatist authorities or Kyiv.

"It's really scary. I've taken everything I could carry," said Tatyana, 30, who was boarding a bus with her four-year-old daughter.

Russian news agencies said 10,000 evacuees had arrived so far in Russia. The separatist authorities say they aim to evacuate 700,000 people.