MOSCOW/KYIV/DONETSK (REUTERS) – Russia will extend military drills in Belarus that were due to end on Sunday (Feb 20), the Belarusian defence ministry announced, adding to mounting tensions as satellite images appeared to show new deployments of Russian armor and troops close to Ukraine.
The White House said President Joe Biden was cancelling a trip to Delaware and remaining in Washington following a two-hour meeting of his National Security Council.
Mr Biden instead spoke by phone with French President Emmanuel Macron about the Russian buildup, the White House said.
Russia’s move to prolong its Belarus exercises has rattled nerves that have been frayed for weeks over Russia’s accumulation of soldiers along the Ukrainian border.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the move only made him more worried that Russia was on the brink of invading. Moscow has repeatedly denied such plans.
US-based satellite imagery company Maxar reported multiple new deployments of Russian military units in forests, farms, and industrial areas as little as 15km (9 miles) from the border with Ukraine – something Maxar said represented a change from what had been seen in recent weeks.
"Until recently, most of the deployments had been seen primarily positioned at or near existing military garrisons and training areas," the company said.
Mr Blinken told CNN that "everything we are seeing suggests that this is dead serious," adding that the West was equally prepared if Moscow invades.
“Until the tanks are actually rolling, and the planes are flying, we will use every opportunity and every minute we have to see if diplomacy can still dissuade President (Vladimir) Putin from carrying this forward.”
Mr Blinken said his planned meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was still set to proceed this week as long as Moscow did not go ahead with the invasion.
An adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron said France and Russia had agreed that a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), with representatives from Ukraine and Russia, should be held on Monday.
Poland, currently the OSCE chair, said earlier that at Ukraine’s request it was convening an extraordinary session of its council, which is dedicated to preventing armed conflict.
Belarus did not say how long Russian troops in Belarus - estimated by Nato to number 30,000 – might now remain in the country, which lies north of Ukraine.
Belarus Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin said the focus of the extended exercises was “to ensure an adequate response and de-escalation of military preparations of ill-wishers near our common borders.”
Sporadic shelling across the line dividing Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists in that region increased sharply since Thursday and continued on Sunday.
Nato says Russia could use the troops in Belarus as part of an invasion force to attack Ukraine. Moscow denies any such intention.
"It is not an exaggeration to say that Europe is a step away from war, which was something unimaginable not long ago," Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said in a TV interview.
Mr Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, told Reuters the extension of the exercises underlined that official promises from Moscow should not be taken as binding.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the repeated warnings by the West that Russia was about to invade were provocative and could have adverse consequences, which he did not spell out.
Russia says the West has raised tensions by sending Nato reinforcements to eastern Europe during the crisis.
Western countries are preparing sanctions they say would be wide-reaching against Russian companies and individuals in case of an invasion.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the BBC that such measures could include restrictions on Russian businesses’ access to the dollar and the pound.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told German broadcaster ARD that Russia "would in principle be cut off from the international financial markets" and be cut off from major European exports.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said it was time for the West to implement at least part of the sanctions it has prepared.
“Russia has to be stopped right now. We see how events are unfolding,” Kuleba said.
The Biden administration has so far refused to do so, saying their deterrent effect would be lost if they were used too soon.
“As soon as you trigger them that deterrence is gone,” Mr Blinken said on CNN’s State of the Union show.
The focus of tensions in recent days has been on the swathe of eastern Ukraine that Russian-backed rebels seized in 2014, the same year Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. More than 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the east.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on Sunday for an immediate ceasefire in the eastern part of the country.
Mr Macron blamed the separatists for the renewed hostilities, while Mr Putin blamed Ukraine, the French presidential adviser said.
On Sunday, a Reuters reporter heard explosions in the centre of Donetsk city in the eastern Donbass region controlled by separatists. Heavy shelling was heard elsewhere in the region.
SMS messages sent to residents of Donetsk urged men to report for military duty.
More than 30,000 people from Donetsk and nearby Luhansk have crossed the Russian border in the past 24 hours, TASS news agency said, quoting authorities in Russia’s Rostov region. The separatists began evacuating residents on Friday saying Ukraine was planning to attack – which Kyiv denies.
Local military forces in one of the separatist areas, Luhansk, said on Sunday that two civilians had been killed and five buildings damaged in shelling by the Ukraine military.
Ukraine’s joint forces said late Sunday that pro-Russian forces were shelling their own compatriots in eastern Ukraine to blame the attacks on Kyiv.
The statement could not immediately be verified, although Ukraine and its allies have for weeks been warning of Russian "false flag" attacks.
Two Ukrainian soldiers were reported killed and four wounded on Saturday.
The renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine follows a build-up over several weeks of Russia troops to the north, east and south of the country.
The West estimates 150,000 or more Russian troops are currently near Ukraine’s borders.