Separatists in eastern Ukraine have announced they are evacuating civilians to Russia, as spiking tensions in the region aggravated Western fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and a new war in Europe.
It was the latest in a cascade of developments this week that have brought East-West relations to their lowest point in decades.
US and European officials, focused on an estimated 150,000 Russian troops posted around Ukraine’s borders, fear the long-simmering separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine could provide the spark for a broader attack.
Russia announced massive nuclear drills on Friday to flex its military muscle, while the West sought ways to keep the peace.
US leaders issued their most dire warnings yet that Moscow could order an invasion of Ukraine any day.
Immediate worries focused on the volatile front lines of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east, where a surge of shelling on Thursday tore through the walls of a nursery school and basic communications were disrupted.
The separatist conflict between Ukrainian government forces and Moscow-backed separatists erupted in 2014 and has killed over 14,000 people.
Denish Pushilin, the head of the separatist government in the Donetsk region, said women, children and the elderly will be evacuated first, and that Russia has prepared facilities to accommodate them.
The drumbeat of warnings that a larger conflict could start at any moment continued on Friday after US President Joe Biden warned that Washington saw no signs of a promised Russian withdrawal — but instead saw more troops moving toward the border with Ukraine.
Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the US believes Russia could launch an attack “any time” and also said he still had seen no sign of the promised Russian pullback. He will hold a call on Friday with Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Even as Russia claimed to be pulling back troops from extensive military exercises that had sparked fears of invasion, the Kremlin sent a reminder to the world that it has one of the world’s biggest nuclear arsenals, by announcing drills of its nuclear forces for the weekend.
The muscle-flexing overshadowed Russian offers this week of continued diplomacy to defuse the Ukraine crisis.
Nato allies are also flexing their might, beefing up military forces around eastern Europe, but insist the actions are purely defensive and to show unity in the face of Russian threats.
The US announced the six billion dollar sale of 250 tanks to Poland, a Nato member that has been occupied or attacked by Russia over past centuries.
Announcing the deal, Mr Austin said Russia’s military build-up had only reinvigorated Nato instead of cowing it, as Moscow had hoped.
Meanwhile, world leaders meeting at the Munich Security Conference warned that Europe’s security balance is under threat.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said that the situation is “calling into question the basic principles of the European peace order”.
“Even steps, millimetres toward peace are better than a big step toward war,” she said.
Moscow has denied any intention of attacking its neighbour, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mocked the Western warning of an imminent invasion as “fakes” that “cause a smile” in remarks broadcast on Friday.
Despite the Russian denials, Washington and its allies are concerned the longtime separatist conflict simmering in eastern Ukraine could provide an excuse for an invasion, though they have not provided details.
With tensions already at their highest level since the Cold War, the Russian military announced that President Vladimir Putin will monitor a sweeping exercise of the country’s nuclear forces on Saturday that will involve multiple practice missile launches — a stark reminder of the country’s nuclear might amid the showdown with the West.
While the Kremlin insists it has no plans to invade, it has urged the West to keep Ukraine out of Nato and roll back alliance forces from Eastern Europe — demands roundly rejected by Western allies.
Mr Biden planned to speak by phone on Friday with trans-Atlantic leaders about the Russian military build-up and continued efforts at deterrence and diplomacy.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed some conclusions of U.S. intelligence in Thursday’s speech at the UN Security Council, warning that Russia could create a false pretext for an invasion with a “so-called terrorist bombing” inside Russia, a staged drone strike, “a fake, even a real attack … using chemical weapons”.
He charged that invasion would open with cyberattacks, along with missile strikes and bombs across Ukraine, describing the entry of Russian troops and their advance on Kyiv, a city of nearly three million, and other key targets.
Despite the stark US warnings, Ukrainian officials sought to project calm, with Oleksii Danilov, head of the National Security and Defense Council, saying late on Thursday that there were no signs a massive Russian invasion was imminent.
“We don’t undermine the threat in any case, but the possibility of escalation is considered to be relatively low regarding large-scale invasion of Ukraine,” Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov told politicians on Friday.
Nevertheless, US and European officials were on high alert for any Russian attempts at a so-called false flag operation, according to a Western official familiar with intelligence findings.
Ukrainian government officials shared intelligence with allies that suggested the Russians might try to shell the areas in the Luhansk region controlled by separatists as part of an effort to create a false reason to take military action, according to the official.
On Thursday, monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported more than 500 explosions before the tensions eased in the evening.
Ukrainian authorities and separatists traded accusations of violations of a shaky truce in the nearly eight-year-old conflict in the eastern industrial heartland known as the Donbas. The conflict erupted shortly after Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula.
The Ukrainian military command said shells hit a nursery school in Stanytsia Luhanska, wounding three people, and cut power to half the town. The rebels said nearly 19 houses were damaged by Ukrainian fire.
Early on Friday, separatist authorities in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions reported more shelling by Ukrainian forces along the tense line of contact. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the situation is “potentially very dangerous”.
Ukrainian officials charged that the rebels intensified the shelling in the hopes of provoking a retaliatory attack by government forces.
The Ukrainian military chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said that it is “not planning any offensive operations or shelling of civilians”, adding that “our actions are purely defensive”.