By Jamie Dettmer
Western leaders and Russia maintained a withering war of words Friday in the weeks-long standoff over Ukraine and amid Kremlin threats to retaliate militarily unless NATO agrees to withdraw the small level of forces it has stationed in the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe, now members of the Western alliance.
Leaders of both self-proclaimed breakaway republics in Donbas called on their citizens Friday to begin evacuations, saying those who are fit enough should pick up arms and the rest should leave — with food and shelter to be provided in the Russian town of Rostov-on-the-Don.
In a broadcast, the Donetsk leader Denis Pushilin said the “life and health of our citizens is endangered.” He claimed Ukraine’s president had amassed troops along the front line and was ready to give an order for an offensive. The evacuation order is not mandatory. The broadcasts of both the Donetsk and Luhansk leaders were pre-recorded two days ago, according to video experts who analyzed the metadata.
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin said Russia was watching “the escalation” in the Donbas, and he called on Kyiv to begin talks with the two breakaway regions in the country’s war-torn east to secure a permanent cease-fire. “The sooner this happens, the better,” he said at a press conference.
The evacuation call has alarmed Kyiv and independent observers. “It is difficult to understand DNR leader Denis Pushilin’s obvious lies today about Ukrainian aggression and the compulsory evacuation to Russia as anything but the beginning of a Russian assault on Ukraine,” tweeted Anders Åslund, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a New York-based think tank.
Many of the sharpest exchanges between the West and Russia focused on a shelling Thursday in eastern Ukraine that damaged a kindergarten and injured five civilians in the small town of Stanytsia Luhanska in pro-Ukrainian territory in Donbas.
Separatists in the Luhansk region attempted to blame the Ukrainian government for the shelling, adding that rebel forces returned fire, according to the Associated Press. However, Ukraine disputed the claim, saying Russia-backed separatists had shelled its forces, but they didn’t fire back. The Ukrainian military command said the shelling wounded two teachers and cut power to half the town, according to media reports.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said during a visit to Poland Friday that an invasion of Ukraine could see tens of thousands of war refugees fleeing to Poland “trying to save themselves and their families from the scourge of war.”
He said the U.S. is continuing to provide military aid to Ukraine and is boosting the military capability of NATO’s Central European states. “It is ironic that what Mr. Putin did not want to see happen was a stronger NATO on his flank — and that’s exactly what he will see going forward.”
Poland’s defense minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, welcomed at a joint press conference in Warsaw the Biden administration’s decision to provide 250 M1-A1 Abrams tanks to Poland.
He rebuked Russia for revanchism, saying the “best response” is “not appeasement from the side of the free world, but deterrence.”
Ukraine and the Western allies blame Moscow-backed separatists in the disputed Donbas region for additional artillery and mortar salvos, as well as the strike on the kindergarten. They say the salvos signal Moscow’s intentions to launch a major attack, possibly in the next few days.
Citing the shelling, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson accused Russia of orchestrating “false flag” attacks in eastern Ukraine and said Moscow was behind the shelling. He described the situation as “very grim.”
The Ukrainian military said separatists opened fire on more than 10 settlements Thursday, using heavy artillery, mortars and a tank. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has dubbed the military action a “big provocation.”
Meanwhile, Russia and its armed proxies in Donbas say Ukrainian forces are responsible for Thursday’s shelling across a cease-fire line that has separated the rival forces since 2015, prompting Western officials to warn the Kremlin is preparing an excuse to invade Ukraine.
The Moscow-backed separatists and Ukrainian authorities again made competing claims over three further salvos of artillery and mortar fire Friday, just hours after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned the U.N. Security Council that Russia is planning “a fake, even a real, attack.”
“Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing or a genocide. This could be a violent event that Russia will bring on Ukraine or an outrageous accusation that Russia will level against the Ukrainian government,” he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed reports of a planned Russian invasion but said the situation in eastern Ukraine is “escalating.” He told reporters, “We have repeatedly warned that the excessive concentration of Ukrainian armed forces in the immediate vicinity of the line of demarcation, coupled with possible provocations [by Ukraine], could pose a terrible danger. Now we see that these provocations are taking place.”
A flurry of meetings between Western leaders began Friday, with U.S. President Joe Biden hosting a call involving, among others, the leaders of Ukraine’s neighbor Poland, Canada, France, Germany, Britain, the European Union and NATO.
Harris in Munich
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Munich for a summit and two days of talks with global leaders including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Zelenskiy.
“I will join other world leaders to underscore our commitments to our allies and partners and demonstrate our unity in the face of Russian aggression on Ukraine’s borders,” Harris tweeted on arrival in Germany.
Ahead of the meetings, Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, accused the Kremlin of trying to set the clock back to the Soviet era and criticized what she described as Russia’s “Cold War demands.”
Russia has been demanding “security guarantees” from the West, including a legally binding assurance that Ukraine will never join NATO. Western leaders have rejected the demand for guarantees, on the grounds that Moscow has no right to dictate to independent nations and is only willing to discuss arms control and confidence-building measures.
The Ukrainian military said Friday it had recorded at least 60 cease-fire violations by pro-Russian separatists in the previous 24 hours, with one soldier injured. It accused Russia’s armed proxies of using weapons banned under a cease-fire agreement struck in 2015 under the Minsk Accord, which was brokered by France and Germany.
Kyiv also says pro-Russian forces have used small drones to drop explosives on Ukrainian positions. It warned Friday that pro-Russian separatist authorities are preparing to evacuate civilians from towns they control, including the city of Donetsk, in preparation for a possible escalation of hostilities.
In a statement posted on Facebook, Gen. Valery Zaluzhniy, Ukraine’s top general, said he had “information from the occupied territories” about an evacuation. He denied his forces have any offensive plans.
“I officially declare: the armed forces of Ukraine continue to observe the Minsk agreement and the rules of international humanitarian law, and do not plan any offensive operations or the shelling of civilians,” he said.
Separatist leaders in Donbas, however, accuse Ukraine of violations and offensive plans, although they concur with Kyiv there has been an uptick in breaches of the cease-fire.
“The situation has tangibly worsened on the contact line over the past day. The enemy is trying to escalate the conflict on direct orders from the Kyiv military and political leadership,” the militia spokesperson of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, Yan Leshchenko, told reporters.
Militia leaders in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic also said in a statement there has been a “sharp escalation on the contact line.”
Fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces has been flaring and simmering, escalating and de-escalating for eight years. Mostly low-level skirmishes are routine and a daily occurrence. But some Ukrainian officials say Thursday’s bombardment was different and more menacing because it involved multiple bombardments coordinated along the 250-kilometer frontline.
Other officials, though, disagree, saying coordinated artillery and mortar has been seen before.
While both sides say there has been a significant uptick in military activity the past 48 hours, assertions repeated by media outlets, reports from a monitoring team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe don’t altogether confirm that.
On Thursday, the OSCE recorded 189 ceasefire violations, including 128 explosions in the Donetsk region, and in the Luhansk region the mission recorded 402 ceasefire violations, including 188 explosions.
That was an increase on the previous 24-hour reporting period when the mission recorded 24 violations in Donetsk and 129 in Luhansk.
But on February 11 the OSCE recorded almost 1,000 cease-fire violations across both Donetsk and Luhansk.
The OSCE has been monitoring military activity in Donbas since 2016, and its remit doesn’t allow it to apportion blame for cease-fire violations, but most are committed by pro-Moscow separatists, former members of the mission tell VOA.
And last year saw a marked decrease in cease-fire violations with the mission recording 93,902, down from 134,767 in 2020. Sixteen civilians were killed and 75 injured in 2021. The worst year for breaches of the cease-fire was in 2017, when the OSCE reported 401,336 violations.
The OSCE has reported this week some serious obstacles placed by combatants on the freedom of movement of their monitoring teams. On Wednesday 27 kilometers southwest of Luhansk, monitors were told by separatists to leave the area and were instructed to seek prior authorization before trying to visit again.
On Wednesday, too, the mission’s freedom of movement was restricted at a heavy weapons storage facility controlled by Ukrainian forces in the Luhansk region and later at a storage site in a separatist controlled area in Donetsk. The OSCE also says its drones have been targeted by GPS signal interference “caused by probable jamming.”
Western allies are fearful Russia might try repeat a tactic it was accused of using in 2008 to provoke a military reaction from Georgia and to trigger the first European war of the 21st century. Pro-Russian volunteer paramilitaries, mainly Chechens, prompted confrontations with the Georgians giving the Kremlin a pretext for intervention to defend the breakaway republics of the Russian-backed self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.