Pro-Russia rebels have begun evacuating civilians from areas of eastern Ukraine as air raid sirens sounded there today, raising fears that Putin is about to order his troops across the border and spark a bloody war.
Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk, and Leonid Pasechniky, head of the Luhansk People’s Republic, said women, children and the elderly will be evacuated starting today in order to protect them from what they claimed would be a Ukrainian invasion.
Ukraine’s defence minister Dmyro Kuleba ‘categorically’ denied that Ukraine is about to invade. The announcement is thought to be another disinformation effort orchestrated out of Moscow to disguise Putin’s own attack plans and provide a pre-text for the invasion.
Wearing military garb instead of his usual suit and tie, Pushilin gave a televised address in which he said: ‘President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky will soon give an order to the military to go on the offensive.
‘Therefore, from today, February 18, a mass centralized departure of the population to the Russian Federation has been organized. First of all, women, children and the elderly are subject to evacuation. We kindly ask you to listen and make the right decision.’
It comes after rebel forces claimed to have thwarted a ‘sabotage’ attack earlier in the day by Ukrainian forces, including Polish nationals, on chlorine tanks. The US had warned just the day before that rebels might stage a faked chemical weapons attack.
There are now thought to be up to 190,000 Russian soldiers backed by tanks, artillery, helicopters, fighter jets and missile batteries within reaching distance of Ukraine as Putin prepares to personally oversee nuclear missile drills that will take place tomorrow.
Moscow says the drills will involve the live-fire of ballistic and cruise missiles as part of a wide-reaching ‘readiness’ check of the country’s nuclear and non-nuclear forces. It is feared the exercise, which Moscow insists has been planned for a while, will provide cover for an invasion – with a missile barrage likely to be the Kremlin’s first move.
It comes as defence ministers meet in Munich for a security conference that will begin today and continue over the weekend aimed at averting war in Ukraine. Russia will not send a delegation to the summit, marking the first time in years that it has not attended.
The historical parallel with the 1938 Munich Agreement – an attempt at appeasement with Hitler’s Germany that failed to avert the Second World War – could hardly be more poignant or chilling.
- US President Joe Biden will hold talks with Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania the EU and NATO allies on Friday to discuss the crisis, European sources said
- Lloyd Austin, US defence secretary, arrived in Poland where he announced the sale of Abrams tanks to Warsaw and again accused Russia of lying about withdrawing its forces from Ukraine’s borders
- Shelling continued along the frontlines between Ukrainian forces and Moscow-backed rebels in the country’s east, following the heaviest day of attacks in the last four years on Thursday
- Pro-Moscow rebels claimed to have thwarted a sabotage attack on chlorine gas tanks by two ‘Polish-speaking’ nationals, just a day after the US warned they may stage a ‘false flag’ chemical attack
- Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, accused international groups monitoring the clashes of trying to ‘conceal’ what is going on and said rebel forces are being shot at with banned weapons
Buses arrive in the city of Donetsk, rebel-occupied Ukraine, after pro-Moscow leaders announce that women, children and the elderly would be evacuated starting today ahead of what they said would be an attack by Kiev
The streets of Donetsk are deserted as an air raid siren sounds, raising fears that Putin is about to march Russian forces across the border and spark a bloody war in Europe
Buses are pictured arriving in the city of Donetsk to carry away civilians as part of an evacuation ordered by pro-Moscow rebel forces which control the region
Cars are pictured queuing for fuel in Donetsk amid fears that Russia could soon march troops across the border as part of a wider invasion of Ukraine
People are pictured queuing for an ATM in Donetsk amid fears that Putin could be about to spark a bloody war in Europe
Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-declared People’s Republic of Donetsk, donned military garb to give an address to the region late Friday announcing people would be evacuated ‘to protect your life’
Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko meet at the Kremlin today, as Russia announced major missile drills to take place tomorrow which will be personally overseen by the two men
The report said Putin has massed troops on Ukraine’s northern border in a way that ‘directly threatens Kiev, the capital’ and showed a series of possible routes Russian soldiers could take in an invasion that could see them take much of the east of the country
A map showing where Putin’s forces have assembled on Ukraine’s borders, the military options Putin might be considering, and key targets he would likely go after in the event he chooses to invade – something the US continues to war could be just weeks away from happening
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak attend a welcoming ceremony before their meeting in Warsaw, Poland
From pretext to ground troops: The four steps in a Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to Antony Blinken at the UN
Blinken said he was outlining Russia’s plans during a meeting of the UN Security Council ‘not to start a war but to prevent one’
Secretary of State Antony Blinken used a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to outline how the US believes a Russian invasion of Ukraine would unfold
1) Manufactured pretext – Russia would accuse Ukraine of a violent outrage such as a fabricated terrorist bombing inside Russia, a faked mass grave, a drone strike against civilians or a fake – or even a real – chemical weapons attack.
2) Emergency meetings in Moscow – Blinken said the highest levels of government may ‘theatrically’ convene emergency meetings to address the so-called crisis, before issuing a proclamation that they must defend Russians in Ukraine.
3) Attack – the next stage will come with Russian missiles and bombs dropping on Ukraine, jammed communications, and cyberattacks designed to shut down ‘key Ukrainian institutions.’
4) Ground invasion – Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans. Blinken said that would include Ukraine’s capital Kiev.
Blinken offered another chilling line.
‘Conventional attacks are not all that Russia plans to inflict upon the people of Ukraine,’ he said.
‘We have information that indicates Russia will target specific groups of Ukrainians.’
The US has faced repeated questions about the validity of its intelligence. And those seated around the table from Blinken will remember the false claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction presented there almost 20 years ago.
‘Let me be clear, I am here today not to start a war but to prevent one,’ said Blinken.
‘Information presented here is validated by what we’ve seen unfolding in plain sight before our eyes for months.’
Shunning the West, Putin instead spent Friday meeting with Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk – who announced he will help oversee the drills on Saturday.
Lukashenko, who for many years resisted welcoming Russian troops to his country, has now allowed thousands in to stage joint drills at military bases and has even floated the idea of changing the country’s constitution to allow nuclear weapons to be stationed there.
As diplomats gathered, Russia continue to push claims of ‘genocide’ in Ukraine’s Donbass region that the West warns will likely be used as a pre-text to attack. Last night, at the UN, Russia presented papers alleging 9,000 civilians including 126 children have been killed by Ukrainian forces. The claims have not been verified.
Meanwhile Britain’s Ministry of Defence outlined how it believes a Russian invasion will play out, noting that over half of Moscow’s forces near Ukraine have been moved to within 30 miles of the border. Ukraine warned today that the total number of troops now stands at 149,000, while the US said it could be up to 190,000.
Putin has massed troops on Ukraine’s northern border in a way that ‘directly threatens Kiev, the capital’, said the MoD report, which showed a series of possible routes Russian soldiers could take in an invasion that could see them take much of the east of the country.
It warned there would be ‘considerable’ civilian casualties in the event of war and that Putin ‘would be willing’ to sustain the losses ‘to get what he wants’.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will be among the dignitaries attending the three-day event, known as ‘Davos for defence’, which kicks off on Friday at the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich.
No Russian delegation will attend the conference, the Kremlin said last week – the first no-show in years, underscoring how much East-West relations have deteriorated.
Even at the height of the Ukrainian revolution preceding Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said the forum had increasingly become biased towards the West, ‘losing its inclusivity, objectivity’.
Daniela Schwarzer, a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, said: ‘Russia has limited interest in dialogue and in particular an open conversation about security in Europe.
‘The conference is an occasion for the political West to show unity vis-a-vis Russia and vis-a-vis authoritarian regimes more generally.’
U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday there was now every indication Russia was planning to invade Ukraine in the next few days and was preparing a pretext to justify it, after Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow rebels traded fire in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin accused him of stoking tensions and threatened unspecified ‘military-technical measures’.
Schwarzer noted that the conference, while scaled back compared to pre-pandemic ones, would be the first physical meeting of the international security and foreign policy community in two years. In-person conversations were key to ‘building trust’, she said.
The Ukraine standoff is not the only crisis that will keep conference attendees busy. Roundtables on Saturday, the main day of events, will also address the fragile security situation in the Sahel and the revival of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal.
Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger told reporters he could not recall a time when there were ‘so many overlapping crises’.
On Friday, the main program kicks off from 1230 GMT with speeches by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Ahead of conference’s opening ceremony, Ms Baerbock said Moscow needed to show ‘serious steps towards de-escalation’.
‘With an unprecedented deployment of troops on the border with Ukraine and Cold War demands, Russia is challenging fundamental principles of the European peace order,’ Baerbock said in a statement.
Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven club of rich nations – including France, Britain, the US and Japan – will discuss the Ukraine crisis on the conference sidelines Saturday.
The talks will be hosted by Baerbock, whose country currently holds the G7 presidency.
‘Even tiny steps towards peace are better than big steps towards war. But we also need serious steps towards de-escalation from Russia,’ she said.
‘Declarations of willingness to talk must be backed up by real offers to talk. Declarations of troop withdrawals must be backed up by verifiable troop withdrawals.’
Also on Friday, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin was paying a visit to Poland – which neighbours Ukraine and is where thousands of US troops and permanent American missile bases are stationed – as a show of support.
After a welcome ceremony in the capital Warsaw, Austin dismissed Russian assertions that forces are being withdrawn from areas around Ukraine and said the United States was committed to the defense of NATO allies.
‘What Mr. Putin did not want was a stronger NATO on his flank, and that’s exactly what he has today,’ Austin told a press conference after announcing the planned sale of Abrams battle tanks to NATO member Poland.
Mr Blaszczak said that Poland will be willing to help refugees displaced by the fighting, amid warnings that up to a million people could flee across the border if war breaks out.
Meanwhile Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a summit in Brussels that sanctions being prepared for Russia in the event of an attack would be harsher than those imposed after the attack on Crimea in 2014.
Elsewhere, the Ukrainian military and independent conflict monitors reported a large uptick in fighting along the frontlines between Kiev’s forces and separatist rebels in the country’s east.
Pro-Moscow rebels claim to have thwarted ‘sabotage’ mission on chlorine tanks after US warned of ‘false flag’ chemical weapons attack to justify an invasion
Pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine claim to have thwarted a ‘sabotage’ attack on chlorine tanks, just a day after the US warned they could stage a false flag chemical attack to create the pre-text for a Russian invasion.
Commanders from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic claimed a unit of around 10 or 12 people including Polish-speaking saboteurs attacked a chlorine plant in the town of Horlivka on Friday.
Poland is a NATO member which neighbours Ukraine and has spoken out against the invasion, whilst also welcoming deployments of US troops, weapons and vehicles over the last few weeks.
The rebels even supplied video which they claimed had come from a body camera taken from a dead enemy combatant, showing them opening fire. The footage does not clearly show where the person is or what they are firing at.
Moscow-backed rebels claim to have thwarted a sabotage attack on chlorine tanks near Donetsk, and even released what they claimed was bodycam footage taken from one of the dead saboteurs
A statement from the DPR ‘people’s militia’ – with close ties to the Russian armed forces and secret services – said: ‘Our observers revealed the movement of two special-purpose groups of Ukrainian armed forces numbering 10 and 12 people.
‘Our defenders were forced to open fire from duty weapons. The enemy suffered losses of at least two killed, three wounded and was forced to retreat.’
The statement from the militia said: ‘According to our reconnaissance, saboteurs planned to blow up a container with chlorine on the territory of a sewage treatment plant near the city of Gorlovka (Horlivka).
‘At the site of the clash, foreign-made personal protective equipment and ammunition, as well as an action camera mounted on a bulletproof vest, were found.’
The militia claimed that ‘shortly before the clash, we intercepted the conversations of saboteurs in Polish.
Western leaders, led by the US, have been repeatedly warning that Russia or Moscow-backed separatist forces will try to stage a false flag operation that would justify Putin invading on the basis of ‘protecting’ ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
The ‘attack’ comes just a day after the US warned rebels would try to stage a false flag chemical weapons attack in order to justify Putin marching his troops across the border
Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned just yesterday that this may take the form of a real or faked chemical weapons attack, which may also involve the use of faked corpses and mourners.
Other possibilities raised by the US include a faked drone bombing, and disinformation placed in Russian media by officials about mass killings of civilians.
Russian prosecutors are currently pushing such claims at the UN, alleging that they have uncovered mass graves of hundreds of civilians killed by Ukrainian shelling.
At the UN last night, Russia submitted documents that claimed 9,000 civilians include 126 children have been killed by Ukraine’s forces since 2014 – the last time Putin invaded the country.
Kiev has rubbished these claims, and instead accuses rebel forces of firing shells at them and inflicting casualties – including one fired yesterday which hit a kindergarten and left three wounded.
Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of his security council today, amid continued warnings from the West that a Ukraine invasion is now just days away
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak attend a joint conference as Austin announces the sale of US Abrams tanks to Warsaw
Russian cruiser Moskva of the Black Sea Fleet opens fire with its main guns during combat drills around Crimea on Friday
An image released by the Russian Defence Ministry shows cruiser Moskva of the Black Sea Fleet taking part in combat drills
Russian tanks are pictured lining up beside railway tracks to be loaded on to transports in what Moscow claims is a withdrawal of forces from Ukraine’s borders, but the West says are actually units moving closer to the frontlines
Russian T-72B tanks are loaded on the back of a train at an unknown location on the border with Ukraine, as Kiev warns troop numbers in the region have now reached 149,000
A top-down view of a Russian T-72B tank shows it being loaded on to the back of a train transport somewhere near Ukraine
A video released by Russia’s defence ministry shows tanks loaded on to the back of a train transport somewhere near Ukraine
The UK has warned that more than half of Russia’s forces near Ukraine are less than 30 miles from the border, despite Moscow claiming to be pulling back (pictured, tanks on a transport somewhere near the border)
Ukraine said there were 60 incidents of shelling along virtually the whole of the frontline Thursday, the most-active day of attacks since 2018. Shelling continued early Friday, according to witnesses.
International monitors tasked with keeping the peace reported more than 300 explosions in 24 hours ending Thursday, around four times as many as an average day over the past month.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, on Friday accused monitor groups of lying about what is happening in eastern Ukraine and accused Ukrainian forces of firing with banned weapons.
Rebel commanders also claim they are being shot at by Ukrainian forces, but Kiev has rubbished the claim – saying they are the ones under ‘unprovoked’ attack.
The village of Stanytsia Luhanska suffered more than its share of explosions on Thursday. One shell crashed into a kindergarten, blasting a hole in the wall that sent soccer balls flying off the classroom shelves just as the school day started. Others blasted craters into the schoolyard and shattered windows of nearby homes.
‘We heard the sound of broken glass. The children were very scared. Some kids started crying immediately, and the explosions continued for the next 20 minutes,’ said Olena Yaryna, the school director.
At Valentyna Melnychenko’s nearby home, the explosions filled her living room and hall with smoke.
‘I switched off the TV, and there were seven more shellings and then it stopped,’ she said as she surveyed the damage outside, her hair covered in a bright pink scarf that contrasted with the gray debris behind her.
Three people were wounded and half the village lost power. Oleksandr Pavliuk, a Ukrainian army commander, said the explosions were intended to provoke a response and ultimately a counter-response, echoing the warnings from the United States.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been in place in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since 2014 to try and maintain the cease-fire. But even they were drawn into the fray this week.
In addition to the explosions, the organization recorded nearly 600 cease-fire violations over the course of a day, more than double the average for the past month. And three of the organization’s small surveillance drones went astray after the GPS signal was jammed; a fourth couldn’t make it off the ground without a signal.
Electronic interference went further overnight, when the cellphone network went down in Luhansk for hours, for the second night in a row, according to an Associated Press journalist working in the area.
The latest warning comes after a day of fraught relations after Moscow’s foreign ministry handed a lengthy document to the US ambassador to Russia demanding that all of Washington’s weapons in central and eastern Europe and the Baltics be removed – along with all weapons already sent to Ukraine – and repeated demands that Ukraine is banned from joining NATO.
In the document, which the US is expected to reject, Moscow accused Washington of failing to respond constructively to the demands it presented in December, including for a halt to the eastern enlargement of NATO.
Russia’s ‘red lines’ were still being ignored, it said in a riposte to US and NATO counter-proposals received last month.
At the same time, the US deputy ambassador to Moscow was expelled – prompting Joe Biden to say he now expects Russia to invade Ukraine in a ‘matter of days’ and that he will not be speaking to Putin in the meantime.
Blinken was in New York on Thursday after pushing back his plans to travel to the Munich Security Conference, which is likely to be the focus of international diplomacy for the next few days.
Ukrainians decorate a street with symbolic angels as they commemorate those killed during the 2014 Maidan protests which ousted the country’s last pro-Moscow president and set it on a path to closer alignment with the West
A girl looks at paper angels paying tribute at the Maidan activists memorial also called the ‘Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred’
A woman places a red carnation and a symbolic paper angel at a memorial paying tribute to those killed during the 2014 Maidan protest which ousted Ukraine’s last pro-Moscow government
German police officers stand guard at a perimeter fence set up around the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich where a security conference will take place today
A police officer with a dog patrols the grounds around the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, where a security conference will take place today with Ukraine high on the agenda
US Vice President Kamala Harris is greeted by Bavaria’s State Premier Markus Soeder as arrives at the airport in Munich, southern Germany, ahead of the conference
He laid out what Washington knew of Kremlin planning, starting with a ‘manufactured provocation and theatrical emergency meetings of the Russian government.
Next would come a promise to protect Russians in Ukraine, before cuber attacks and air strikes would begin. Tanks and soldiers would then move on key targets, including Kiev.
His purpose, he said, in laying out the intelligence findings was to persuade Putin to follow a different course.
Instead he demanded that Moscow issue an unequivocal promise that it will not invade Ukraine.
‘The Russian government can announce today, with no qualification, equivocation or deflection, that Russia will not invade Ukraine,’ he said.
‘State it clearly. State it plainly to the world, and then demonstrate it by sending your troops, your tanks, the planes back to their barracks and hangars and sending your diplomats to the negotiating table.’
In response, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin said Blinken’s scenarios were ‘regrettable.’
‘I would even go so far as to say that they are dangerous because they bring in more tension into the unready tense atmosphere,’ he said, while repeating Moscow’s claims that some troops were already heading home after completing drills.
Earlier he called on the gathered foreign ministers not to turn the meeting into a ‘circus’ or use it to spread ‘baseless accusations.’
Blinken, speaking in front of the UN Security Council on Thursday, said: ‘As we meet today the most immediate threat to peace and security is Russia’s looming aggression against Ukraine.
‘The stakes go far beyond Ukraine. This is a moment of peril for the lives and safety of millions of people.’
‘This crisis directly affects every member of this council and every country in the world because the basic principles that sustain peace and security – principles that were enshrined in the wake of two world wars and the Cold War – are under threat,
‘The principle that one country cannot change the borders of another by force. The principle that one country cannot dictate another’s choices or policies or with whom it will associate. The principal of national sovereignty.’
The Russian document sent to the US ambassador on Thursday listed a series of demands to de-escalate the situation around Ukraine.
These included a halt to Western weapons supplies and removal of those already sent, the withdrawal of Western military advisers and instructors from Ukraine, and a halt to any joint NATO exercises with Ukraine.
‘In the absence of the readiness of the American side to agree on firm, legally binding guarantees of our security from the United States and its allies, Russia will be forced to respond, including through the implementation of military-technical measures,’ the document said.
Russia has suggested in the past that ‘military-technical measures’ could include missile and troop deployments.
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