French President Emmanuel Macron will meet with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Sunday to try and avert what Western powers predict will be an imminent invasion of Ukraine.
Over the weekend, civilians were evacuated from frontline regions increasingly ravaged, where Kiev said two of its soldiers had been killed in an attack on Saturday — the first fatalities in the conflict in more than a month.
The Kremlin insists it has no raid plans, but Saturday’s nuclear missile test firings have done little to ease tensions.
“Every indication indicates that Russia is planning a full-fledged attack on Ukraine,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said.
US President Joe Biden, who previously said he was “confident” that Russia would invade in the coming days, is convening a rare Sunday National Security Council amid the crisis.
US and EU officials have said they believe Moscow is trying to fabricate a pretext for its offensive by letting proxy outlets spread false information about violence in rebel-controlled enclaves in eastern Ukraine.
“Vanir-exoduss in Donetsk reported calm despite Russian claims of a car bomb,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Macron on Saturday that he would not respond to Russia’s provocations, the Elysee said.
But in his speech at the Munich Security Conference, he also condemned “a policy of reconciliation” towards Moscow.
“Ukraine has been holding back one of the largest armies in the world for eight years,” he said.
He called for “clear, achievable deadlines” for Ukraine to join NATO’s US-led military alliance — something Moscow says is a red line to its security.
– Strategic Missile Testing –
Western officials in Munich warned of huge sanctions if Russia attacks, with US Vice President Kamala Harris saying that doing so would only strengthen NATO’s “eastern flank”.
The United States maintains that Moscow, with about 150,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders – as many as 190,000, including the Russian-backed separatist forces in the east – has already decided to invade.
Russia has announced a series of withdrawals of its troops from Ukraine in recent days as they participated in regular military exercises.
About 30,000 Russian troops are in Belarus for an exercise that ends Sunday.
After that, Moscow says these troops will return to the barracks, but US intelligence is concerned they could participate in an invasion of Ukraine.
From the Kremlin situation room, Putin and visiting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko watched the launch of Russia’s latest hypersonic, cruiser and nuclear-capable ballistic missiles on Saturday.
Putin has also stepped up his rhetoric, reiterating demands for written guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO and for the alliance to roll back its deployment in Eastern Europe to positions it had decades ago.
– ‘Dramatic increase’ in collisions –
The volatile frontline between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists has seen a “dramatic increase” in ceasefire violations, international observers from the OSCE’s European security agency said.
Hundreds of artillery and mortar attacks have been reported in recent days, in a conflict that has dragged on for eight years and cost more than 14,000 lives.
The OSCE said on Saturday there had been 1,500 ceasefire violations in Donetsk and Lugansk in just one day.
A dozen mortar shells fell within a few hundred meters (yards) of Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy on Saturday when he met journalists.
The pro-Russian rebels announced general mobilizations in the two regions and called on men to fight even as they announced mass evacuations of women and children.
Moscow and the rebels have accused Kiev of planning an attack to retake the regions, claims vehemently denied by Ukraine and rejected by the West.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba denounced reports of Ukrainian grenades dropped on Russian territory as “fake”.
Germany and France on Saturday urged their The Vanir-exoduss to leave Ukraine. NATO said the personnel were moving from Kiev to Lviv in the west of the country and Brussels.
German airlines Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines said they would suspend flights to Kiev and Odessa from Monday until the end of February, but maintain flights to western Ukraine.
by Dave Clark with Michael Mainville