Artillery fire escalated sharply in eastern Ukraine on Saturday and thousands of residents fled the area in chaotic evacuations – two developments rife with opportunity for what the United States has warned could be pretext for a Russian invasion.
Russian-backed separatists, who have been fighting against the Ukrainian government for years, have asserted, without evidence, that Ukraine is planning a large-scale attack on the territory they have claimed. control.
Western leaders mocked the notion that Ukraine would launch an attack while surrounded by Russian forces, and Ukrainian officials dismissed the claim as “a Russian lie. “
But separatist leaders on Saturday called for women and children to evacuate, and the men could be preparing to fight. And the ginned panic has had a real effect, with refugees frantically boarding buses to Russia and refugee camps springing up across the Russian border.
At the same time, the firing of mortars, artillery and grenades by the separatists along the front lines has almost doubled to the level of the previous two days, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said. Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and five wounded, the military said.
Ukrainian officials said the shelling came only from the separatists, who are seen as proxies of Russia.
New York Times reporters at the scene witnessed artillery shelling from the separatists and did not see Ukrainian forces return fire, although residents in breakaway areas reported shelling from both sides.
Nadya Lapygina said: “I have a small baby and said her town in the Luhansk breakaway was hit by artillery and mortar fire. “You don’t know how scary it is to hide him from shelling.”
In a stark reminder of where this conflict could lead, Russia engaged in a dramatic military theater performance on Saturday, test-firing cruise and ballistic missiles. Russian President Putin has presided over nuclear-capable missile tests as part of what Russia insists are nothing more than exercises and not a prelude to an invasion.
Tensions between the United States and Russia have not been at such high levels since the Cold War, and Russia’s nuclear exercises appear carefully orchestrated to prevent the West from engaging directly militarily in Ukraine.
Western leaders gathering in Munich have repeatedly called for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, despite President Biden’s statement on Friday that Mr. decided to invade Ukraine.
The leaders showed a significant united front in what Vice President Kamala Harris called a “decisive moment” for European security and the defense of democratic values.
But in Ukraine, the increasingly serious fighting nears a tipping point. And there are alarming signs of what US officials describe as a possible prelude to a Russian invasion.
Intense shelling targeted government-controlled territory around the town of Svitlodarsk, a site that has worried security analysts for weeks because of its proximity to dangerous industrial infrastructure, including toxic gas tanks.
A stray shell fired by government fire was likely to hit a chemical plant some six kilometers away in rebel-held territory. The plant, one of Europe’s largest fertilizer plants, has pressurized tanks and more than 12 miles of pipelines filled with toxic ammonia gas.
An explosion there could create a toxic cloud that could be a pretext for a Russian invasion or, US officials have warned, Russia could orchestrate the explosion there itself to justify its own. Involvement.
Another potential flashpoint in the region, a water network that provides drinking water to several million people on both sides of the conflict, may have been destroyed by shelling on Saturday. Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted a spokesman for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic as saying the shelling had hit a pumping station and the water supply was at risk.
The loss of water to residents in Russia-backed regions would reinforce Russia’s assertion that the state of affairs is dire for civilians and would be a setback for Ukraine, which has been trying to convince its people to that the government is not their enemy. Cutting off the water supply amid fighting in 2014 hastened the flow of refugees from the city.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/19/world/europe/shelling-escalates-in-eastern-ukraine-as-us-officials-warn-of-pretexts-for-a-russian-invasion.html The shelling escalated in eastern Ukraine, as US officials warned of the preconditions for a Russian invasion.