Ready at the border, Russia may be looking for preconditions for invasion of Ukraine, officials say

KYIV, Ukraine – Russian military exercises on the Ukrainian border were extended indefinitely on Sunday, leaving a constant threat hanging over a massive Ukrainian military force and chaotic population. after a weekend of shelling and evacuation that US and Ukrainian officials warned was a Moscow effort. an excuse for an invasion.

The Belarusian defense minister said war games in the country, which has a border with Ukraine and where some 30,000 Russian forces are taking part in the drills, will continue due to rising tensions in eastern Ukraine. Russian-backed separatists in the region have evacuated thousands of civilians in the face of what they say is an imminent attack by Ukrainian forces.

With an estimated 190,000 Russian forces now massed on their national borders and in breakaway regions, Ukrainian officials have ruled out any intention of launching an offensive in the eastern region. Donbas, where Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists have been locked in a military stalemate.

After a weekend of sporadic but pounding shelling, the Ukrainian Army’s shelling of Donbas has perhaps reached its highest point in seven years, spanning the entire front. U.S. and Ukrainian officials warn that pro-Moscow separatist leaders have either misreported events or staged incidents to give Russia an opportunity to push deeper into Ukraine.

On Saturday, separatist leaders released a video of a man they say is a Ukrainian spy who participated in a Kyiv-led plot to retake territory from the Donetsk People’s Republic. secession, self-proclaimed.

On Saturday, Russia’s state-owned Channel One broadcast an interview with a man who said he had been tasked with blowing up the car of the Donetsk security police chief, as a part of a five-day plan to violently retake the city and its environs. He said he was smuggling weapons and explosives into the city. The explosion was among the events that caused mass evacuation of people living in the breakaway republics began soon after.

Kyiv has repeatedly denied the allegations.

“This morning we regularly have new lies and videos about fictional events,” Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Saturday in Munich, on a trip accompanying President Volodymyr Zelensky. “This tale of nonsense only convinces people that Ukraine is defending itself from a vicious aggressor who is willing to sacrifice women and children to destroy the peace. ”

He called the ongoing information war between Ukraine and the West on one side and Russia on the other a “clash of civilizations”.

U.S. and Ukrainian officials say Russian propaganda and disinformation are being used to confuse and concoct a false narrative about who is actually threatening whom. The Biden administration has said the drills in Belarus are part of a Russian military build-up that could be used as a force to invade Ukraine – a step the administration says Russian President Putin has taken. intend to perform.

US officials on Sunday said US intelligence agencies learned last week that the Kremlin had ordered Russian military units to launch an invasion. Officials declined to describe the intelligence in detail. But the information prompted President Biden to announce that Putin had made the decision to attack, they said.

However, on Sunday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, said that President Biden remained open to pursuing foreign policy “until the tanks really roll and the planes fly.”

The extension of the exercises on the Ukraine border comes despite repeated assurances from Russia and Belarus that the exercises will end by the end of this week, and it is cited by Moscow’s critics as Further evidence suggests that Mr. Putin is committed to using his foothold in eastern Ukraine to his advantage. nationwide.

“Russian troops staying in Belarus violated all guarantees to withdraw,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said in a statement. Post on Twitter. “It is a clear preparation to attack Ukraine against Kyiv & prepare to annex Belarus”, the country has grown closer to Moscow since its powerful leader violently repressed the rebels. Pro-democracy protests in 2020.

A growing sense of intimidation resonated on Sunday, eight years on from the day dozens of pro-democracy protesters in Kyiv’s central Maidan square were seized by forces loyal to the allied Ukrainian government with Moscow shot down and killed.

The massacre helped set off a chain of events that led to the toppling of Ukraine’s president at the time – and ultimately to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of a war led by Russian-backed separatists. .

Every year, Iryna Horbachova heads to Maidan Square on 20 February to remember the pro-democracy protesters killed in 2014, a fight that has become all the more urgent in the face of the threat of Russian aggression. nowadays.

Ms Horbachova, 36, said Maidan is part of an ongoing struggle in Ukraine for “our right to live in the Ukraine we want – not the kind that Putin and Russia want to push us for”. .

If eight years ago, Ukrainians could not believe that their own police would shoot civilians in the heart of the capital, today they struggle to believe that a full-scale Russian invasion is possible. . The atmosphere in the country is infused with a mixture of determination and trepidation, if not panic.

Ukraine’s military has been trying to rebuild itself in recent years, especially since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The United States alone has provided $2.5 billion in military assistance including public surveillance. high-tech, communications equipment and drones. In November, the United States delivered about 88 tons of ammunition, part of a $60 million military aid package pledged by the Biden administration.

But Ukraine is still far outnumbered by the Kremlin’s forces, and members of Zelensky’s ruling party, the Servant of the People, have sought to assuage fears of a new Russian invasion.

Even if the announcement of continued drills in Belarus is not a prelude to an invasion, having troops so close to Ukraine has kept the country competitive and caused damage. harmful increasing damage to its economy.

For their part, separatist leaders in the breakaway Donbas region over the weekend took steps to create a sort of festive reflection that mirrors what’s going on elsewhere in Ukraine.

They warned of an impending threat, urged military-aged men to stay and take up arms against a possible attack by Ukraine, and suspended a series of operations. public includes “entertainment, amusement, entertainment, cultural, exhibition, educational, public and other activities similar events,” according to a statement posted on their Telegram channel.

The Kyiv government has repeatedly denied any plans to attack the area, and rebel leaders have offered no evidence to support their claims.

Of the thousands of civilians the separatists have evacuated so far, some have moved to stay with relatives in Russia, while others have been put up in tents by the authorities before being relocated to towns and cities. city ​​in Russia.

As Moscow tries to portray the flow of refugees as evidence of Ukraine’s menacing posture, evacuees pass through the train station in Taganrog, a Russian city located on the Sea of ​​Azov near the border with Ukraine, appeared helpless, frightened by the warnings of rebel leaders but unsure of what to expect.

The Russian authorities “lied to us,” said Lyudmila V. Ladnik, 62, who ran away from home in Debaltsevo, part of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

She said she had been told that residents of the breakaway regions would stay temporarily in Rostov, but on Sunday she learned that they would be moved further inside Russia, to a new town. towns such as Kursk. To her dismay, she wondered if her evacuation to Russia would take longer than she expected.

“We’re now calling people home, telling them to stay,” she said.

Commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in a statement that the refugees are being “used to escalate the situation in order to incite another wave of bloodshed.”

Ms. Horbachova, of Maidan square, said the last thing she wanted to see in Ukraine was more bloodshed.

“For eight years we had war; for eight years, our people have died for our identity and for our freedom,” she said in tears. “There is a sense of anxiety, of course” as tensions escalate day by day. “But this is not a feeling that forces you to pack up, it’s a feeling that forces you to be strong and defend your country.”

Report contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko from Taganrog, Russia; Michael Schwirtz from Odessa, Ukraine; Maria Varennikova and Marc Santora from Kyiv; and Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Ready at the border, Russia may be looking for preconditions for invasion of Ukraine, officials say

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