KYIV: Spiking tensions in eastern Ukraine on Friday aggravated Western fears of a Russian invasion and a war in Europe, with a humanitarian convoy hit by shelling and pro-Russia rebels evacuating civilians from the conflict zone. The Kremlin declared massive nuclear drills to flex its military muscle, and President Vladimir Putin pledged to protect Russia’s national interests against what he sees as encroaching Western threats.
But immediate worries focused on eastern Ukraine as pro-Moscow rebels in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which form Ukraine’s industrial heartland called the Donbas, announced they had started evacuating civilians to Russia. The announcement appeared to be part of Moscow’s efforts to counter Western warnings of a
Russian invasion, and paint Ukraine as the aggressor instead.
Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk rebel government, said women, children and the elderly would be evacuated first, and that Russia had prepared facilities for them. Pushilin alleged in a video statement that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was going to order an imminent offensive in the area.
Shortly after his statement, authorities began moving children from an orphanage in Donetsk and other residents boarded buses for Russia. Long lines formed at petrol stations as more people prepared to leave on their own.
Putin ordered his emergency minister to fly to Rostov, a region bordering Ukraine, to help organise the exodus and ordered the government to offer a payment of 10,000 roubles (about $130) to each evacuee, equivalent to about half of an average monthly salary in the war-ravaged Donbas.
Ukraine denied planning any offensive, with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba saying that his country cannot conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas.
“We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only,” he tweeted.
Around the volatile line of contact, a United Nations convoy came under rebel shelling in the Luhansk region. Rebels denied involvement and accused Ukraine of staging a provocation.
Separatist authorities reported more shelling by Ukrainian forces along the line. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the situation is potentially very dangerous. A surge of shelling tore through the walls of a kindergarten, injuring two children. Both sides accused each other of opening fire. European and American leaders, meanwhile, grasped for ways to keep the peace and Europe’s post-Cold War security order.
While Putin held out the possibility of diplomacy, a cascade of developments this week have further exacerbated East-West tensions and fuelled war worries. This week’s actions have fed those concerns: US and European officials focused on an estimated 150,000 Russian troops posted around Ukraine’s borders, and warned the long-simmering separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine could provide the spark for a broader attack. Vice President Kamala Harris said the US still hoped Russia would de-escalate, but was ready to hit it with tough sanctions in case of an attack.
Washington this week issued the toughest warning yet that Moscow could order an invasion of Ukraine any day. “We remain, of course, open to and desirous of diplomacy but we are also committed, if Russia takes aggressive action, to ensure there will be the severe consequence,” Kamala Harris said at the annual Munich Security Conference on Friday.
While Russia stayed away from this year’s conference, lines of communication remained open: the US and Russian defence chiefs spoke on Friday, and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin called for de-escalation, the return of Russian forces surrounding Ukraine to their home bases, and a diplomatic resolution, according to the Pentagon.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed to meet next week.
European and US 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.