WASHINGTON - Fears of a conflict in Ukraine heightened further on Saturday (Feb 19), with reports of an escalation in fighting in the eastern part of the country after US President Joe Biden said that he believed his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin had decided on an invasion in the coming days, targeting the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
Mr Putin was seen observing exercises staged by Russian strategic nuclear missile forces along with the leader of neighbouring Belarus, Mr Alexander Lukashenko, from what the Kremlin described as a "situation centre".
The Kremlin said Russia had successfully test-launched hypersonic and cruise missiles at sea and land-based targets.
Referring to the Russian leader, Mr Biden told reporters on Friday: "As of this moment, I'm convinced he's made the decision (on an attack). We have reason to believe that."
Citing "a significant intelligence capability", the US leader also said there was still room for Russia to "choose diplomacy", adding that it was not too late to de-escalate and return to the negotiating table.
Talks between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov are scheduled for Feb 24 in Europe, and any Russian military action before that date will make it "clear that they have slammed the door shut on diplomacy", Mr Biden added.
Tensions on the ground in Ukraine continued to rise over the weekend amid increased shelling involving Russian-backed rebels in the eastern part of the country. Two Russian-backed separatist leaders ordered military mobilisations and urged civilians to evacuate to Russia, citing "Kyiv's aggression", which Ukraine has denied.
Pictures and videos showed busloads of civilians crossing into Russia.
International monitors reported a "dramatic increase" in attacks along a ceasefire line dividing rebel and government forces. A Ukrainian soldier was killed by shelling yesterday morning, the first such death reported in weeks, the BBC said.
The US estimates there are now between 169,000 and 190,000 Russian troops and aligned militia on Ukraine's border, Mr Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a statement on Friday.
He called the build-up "the most significant military mobilisation in Europe since the Second World War".
The New York Times quoted US officials as saying new intelligence showed that nearly half of the 150,000 Russian forces have moved out of staging and into combat formation and could launch a full-scale invasion within days.
Russia denies that it is planning an attack, and Mr Putin has demanded that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) stop Ukraine from joining the pro-Western alliance, which he sees as a security threat, and withdraw its forces from former Soviet states that had chosen to join the Western alliance.
The US and its European allies have been warning for weeks that Russia will seek to set up a false justification to act against Ukraine.
Meanwhile, senior US and European leaders, as well as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, met at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.
Mr Zelensky said that his country would not respond to provocations near its borders.
In her keynote speech, US Vice-President Kamala Harris promised the US would impose far-reaching financial sanctions and export controls if Russia were to launch an attack.
"I can say with absolute certainty that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States, together with our allies and partners, will impose significant and unprecedented economic costs," she said.