DONETSK, UKRAINE/MOSCOW (REUTERS) – Russia’s strategic nuclear forces held exercises overseen by President Vladimir Putin on Saturday (Feb 19), and Washington accused Russian troops massed near Ukraine’s border of advancing and being “poised to strike”.
With Western fears of war rising, foreign ministers from the G-7 group of rich nations said they had seen no evidence Russia is reducing its military activity in the area and remained “gravely concerned” about the situation.
After Kyiv and Moscow traded accusations over new shelling near the border, France and Germany urged all or some of their citizens in Ukraine to leave. US 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.
Russia ordered the military build-up while demanding Nato prevent Ukraine from ever joining the alliance but says Western warnings that it is planning to invade Ukraine are hysterical and dangerous. Moscow says it is pulling back, but Washington and allies say the build-up is mounting.
Washington and Nato say Moscow’s main demands are non-starters, but in Ukraine fears are growing over Putin’s plans.
Venting his frustration at a security conference in Munich, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the global security architecture was “almost broken”. He urged the permanent members of the UN Security Council, 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,” Zelenskiy said. “They do not keep up with new threats. Not effective for overcoming them. This is a cough syrup when you need a coronavirus vaccine.”
World Bank president David Malpass told Zelenskiy in a meeting on Saturday that the bank was readying funding to Ukraine of up to US$350 million (S$470 million), for consideration by its board by the end of March, to support reforms there.
Hypersonic, cruise missiles
The Kremlin said Russia had successfully test-launched hypersonic and cruise missiles at sea during the strategic nuclear forces’ military exercises.
Putin observed the exercises on screens with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko from what the Kremlin called a “situation centre”.
US President Joe Biden said on Friday he believed Putin would invade Ukraine in the coming days and Austin said the exercises were stoking concerns around the world.
Group of 7 foreign ministers called on Russia to choose the path of diplomacy and to de-escalate tensions.
“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,” the foreign ministers said in a statement.
The nuclear drills follow manoeuvres by Russia’s armed forces in the past four months that have included a build-up of troops – estimated by the West to number 150,000 or more – to the north, east and south of Ukraine.
New helicopters and a battle group deployment of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and support equipment have been moved to sites in Russia near the border, according to US-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 Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted by his ministry as telling France’s foreign minister by phone.
Also on Saturday, 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 many other countries have moved diplomats to Lviv.
Russian-backed rebels seized a swathe 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.
Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine have declared a full military mobilisation 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 mobilisation, evacuation and increased shelling are part of a Russian plan to create 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 Russian special forces.
Ukraine’s foreign minister demanded an independent international investigation of the alleged incidents in Rostov and the military said two soldiers had been killed in shelling by pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine.
Explosions were heard in the north of the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, as some residents prepared to leave, a Reuters witness said.
“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 in Russia. Separatist leaders say they aim to evacuate 700,000 people.