STANYTSIA LUHANSKA (AFP) - Shellfire rang out in eastern Ukraine on Friday (Feb 18) as the army and Moscow-backed separatists accused each other of provocations and US warnings of an imminent Russian invasion stoked international tension.
An AFP reporter near the frontline between government forces and rebel-held territory in Luhansk region heard the thud of explosions and saw damaged civilian buildings.
All eyes were on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next move as Moscow announced he will oversee a weekend drill of “strategic forces” – ballistic and cruise missiles.
Russia has demanded that the US withdraw all forces from Nato members in central and eastern Europe and is turning up the pressure on Ukraine.
On Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the United Nations that Washington has intelligence showing that Moscow could order an invasion in the “coming days”.
Russia has denied it has any such plan and claims to have begun withdrawing some of the 149,000 troops that Ukraine now says are on its borders.
But Mr Putin has done nothing to dial down tensions, ordering the missile drills even as there are reports of an increase in shelling from Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.
On Thursday, a shell punched a hole in the wall of a kindergarten in government-held territory near the frontline in the Ukrainian village of Stanytsia Luhanska.
The 20 children and 18 adults inside escaped serious injury but the attack sparked international howls of protest.
“The children were eating breakfast when it hit,” school laundry worker Natalia Slesareva told AFP at the scene.
“It hit the gym. After breakfast, the children had gym class. So another 15 minutes, and everything could have been much, much worse.”
On Friday, part of the village remained without electricity. Mr Konstantin Reutsky, director of the Vostok SOS aid agency, told AFP that houses and a shop had been damaged.
The Ukrainian joint command centre said the rebels had violated the ceasefire 20 times between midnight and 9am on Friday, while the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist groups said the army had fired 27 times.
The conflict in Ukraine’s east has rumbled on for eight years, claiming the lives of more than 14,000 people and forcing more than 1.5 million from their homes.
But now, after Russia surrounded its neighbour with armoured battle groups, missile batteries and warships, there are fears that Ukraine will be drawn into a clash that Russia could use as a pretext for invasion.
Speaking in Parliament, Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov insisted government forces would keep their cool.
“Ukraine is stepping up its defences. But we have no intention of conducting military operations” against the separatists of Russian-annexed Crimea, he said.
“Our mission is not to do any of the things the Russians are trying to provoke us into doing,” Mr Reznikov added. “We have to push back but keep a cool head.”
From the opposing camp, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “What is happening in the Donbass is very concerning news and potentially very dangerous.”
Meanwhile, Mr Putin was to host his ally Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who this week said his country cold host Russian nuclear weapons aimed at the West.
And the Russian defence ministry further upped the ante by announcing that Mr Putin would oversee an “exercise of strategic deterrence forces... during which ballistic and cruise missiles will be launched”. The air force, units of the southern military district, as well as the Northern and Black Sea fleets would be involved.
Russia’s aggressive stance has sent diplomatic shockwaves through the West, scrambling to counter an unpredictable foe during what has been described as the worst threat to European security since the Cold War.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Moscow needed to show “serious steps towards de-escalation”.
“With an unprecedented deployment of troops on the border with Ukraine and Cold War demands, Russia is challenging fundamental principles of the European peace order,” Ms Baerbock said.