Berliner TageBlatt - Shelling, evacuations fuel tensions on Russian-Ukrainian border

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Shelling, evacuations fuel tensions on Russian-Ukrainian border
Shelling, evacuations fuel tensions on Russian-Ukrainian border / Foto: © AFP

Shelling, evacuations fuel tensions on Russian-Ukrainian border

Artillery shelling in the east of Ukraine and orders from Russian-backed separatists for civilians to evacuate the region ratcheted up already crackling tensions over the massing of Russian troops Friday ahead of what the United States says is a likely invasion.


The Kremlin continues to insist that it has no plans to attack its neighbour.

However, the United States says that with an estimated 149,000 Russian troops on Ukraine's borders -- as many as 190,000, when including the Russian-backed separatist forces -- it's likely not a matter of if there'll be a large-scale attack, but when.

Adding to jitters, Russia's defense ministry announced that President Vladimir Putin would personally oversee previously scheduled drills involving nuclear-capable missiles on Saturday.

On the ground in Ukraine's disputed east, sporadic clashes fed a growing sense of dread.

An AFP reporter near the front between Ukrainian government forces and the pro-Russian territory in the Lugansk region heard explosions and saw damaged civilian buildings on Kyiv's side of the line.

There were growing fears that only a spark -- which Washington warns could be a deliberate "false flag" incident created by the Russians -- might now be needed to set off the largest military confrontation in Europe since World War II.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, attending the Munich Security Conference, warned the size of the assembled Russian force far exceeded that needed for military drills, and that Russia had the capacity to invade without warning.

In Washington, US President Joe Biden was set to make remarks on the crisis at 4:00 pm (2100 GMT).

Shortly before, Biden was speaking with fellow NATO allies in a conference call expected to cement already well advanced plans for crippling Western economic sanctions against Russia should its troops attack Ukraine.

- Accusations fly -

In the eastern separatist areas of Donetsk and Lugansk, Moscow-backed leaders sought to flip the narrative of Russia being the aggressor.

Accusing Kyiv of planning its own offensive to retake the eastern territories, they said the government's forces were carrying out sabotage missions. The evacuations of civilians were said to be in response to worries about a government attack.

But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused the Kremlin of mounting a propaganda campaign to create an excuse for war.

Blinken told the Munich conference what has happened "in the last 24 to 48 hours is part of a scenario that is already in place of creating false provocations, of then having to respond to those provocations and then ultimately committing new aggression against Ukraine."

Ukraine's foreign minister said "Russian disinformation" about a supposed Ukrainian attack was being spread to fuel the war fever.

- Putin sees 'deterioration' -

Videos circulating on Russian-language social media showed sirens sounding in Donetsk as Moscow-backed militia leaders ordered the civilian evacuation over the border to Russia.

Denis Pushilin, head of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), declared: "Women, children and the elderly are subject to be evacuated first."

He claimed Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, would soon "give the order for soldiers to go on the offensive."

The leader of neighboring Lugansk Leonid Pasechnik also urged residents to evacuate to Russia "to prevent civilian casualties".

In Moscow, Putin met with the authoritarian leader of Belarus, which is hosting tens of thousands of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border.

"We are seeing a deterioration of the situation," Putin said at a joint press conference.

- 'Could have been much worse' -

On Thursday, a shell punched a hole in the wall of a kindergarten in government-held territory near the frontline in the Ukrainian village of Stanytsia Luganska.

The 20 children and 18 adults inside escaped serious injury but the attack sparked international protest.

"It hit the gym. After breakfast, the children had gym class. So, another 15 minutes, and everything could have been much, much worse," school laundry worker Natalia Slesareva told AFP at the scene.

On Friday, part of the village remained without electricity.

The Ukrainian joint command centre said the rebels had violated the ceasefire 53 times between midnight and 5:00 pm Friday, while the Donetsk and Lugansk separatist groups said the army had fired 27 times in the morning.

"Ukrainian defenders returned fire to stop enemy activity only in case of a threat to the lives of servicemen," the command centre said.

- Russian 'strategic' forces -


The air force, units of the southern military district, as well as the Northern and Black Sea fleets would be involved in the nuclear-capable missile tests.

Russia says that it will not back away from Ukraine unless Western countries agree never to allow Ukraine into NATO and to pull US forces back from eastern Europe, effectively creating a new version of the continent's Cold War-era spheres of influence.

The conflict between the heavily armed pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces in the country's east has already rumbled on for eight years, claiming the lives of more than 14,000 people and forcing more than 1.5 million from their homes.