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Russia extended military exercises about Ukraine Sunday’s northern border amid growing fears that two days of prolonged shelling along a line of contact between Russian-backed soldiers and separatists in eastern Ukraine could spark an invasion.
The exercise, which was originally scheduled to end on Sunday, led a significant contingent of Russian troops to neighboring Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north. The presence of Russian troops has raised concerns that they could be used to inflict on the Ukrainian capital Kiev.
This was announced by the Minister of Defense of Belarus, who said that the two countries “will continue to test the response forces.”
Western leaders have warned that Russia is ready to attack its neighbor, which is opposed on three sides by about 150,000 Russian soldiers, warplanes and equipment. Russia held nuclear exercises on Saturday, as well as regular exercises in Belarus, as well as ongoing naval exercises off the Black Sea coast.
The United States and many European countries have argued for months that Russia is trying to create grounds for an invasion. They threatened mass immediate sanctions if that happened.
Senior European Union official Charles Michel said on Sunday that “the big question remains: does the Kremlin want dialogue?”
“We cannot offer an olive branch forever as long as Russia conducts missile tests and continues to accumulate troops,” said Michel, president of the European Council at the Munich Security Conference. “One thing is certain: if there is further military aggression, we will respond with massive sanctions.”
The President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky called the President of Russia Volodymyr Paste choose a place where the two leaders could meet to try to resolve the crisis. Russia denies plans to invade.
“Ukraine will continue to follow only a diplomatic path for a peaceful settlement,” Zelensky said on Saturday at an international security conference in Munich, Germany. There was no immediate response from the Kremlin.
Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine on Saturday ordered a full military mobilization and sent more civilians to Russia, which has issued about 700,000 passports to rebels in rebel-held areas. Statements that Russian citizens are threatened with extinction can be used to justify hostilities.
Officials in the separatist territories said Ukrainian forces had carried out several artillery attacks over the past day and that two civilians had been killed in a failed assault on a village near the border with Russia.
Vice President Kamala Harris on Sunday stressed the importance of the moment facing Europe.
“We are talking about the potential of war in Europe,” Harris said at the Munich Security Conference. “More than 70 years have passed, and in those 70 years … there has been peace and security.”
The Ukrainian leader criticized the United States and other Western countries for holding back new sanctions on Russia. In comments before the conference, Zelensky also questioned the West’s refusal to allow Ukraine to join NATO immediately.
Putin demanded that NATO not accept Ukraine as a member. Harris supported the US decision to postpone sanctions, but said she would not speculate about “Zelensky’s desire for his country.”
In new signs of fear that the war could start in a few days, Germany and Austria have told their citizens to leave Ukraine. German airline Lufthansa has canceled flights to the capital Kiev and Odessa, a Black Sea port that could be the main target of the invasion.
NATO’s Liaison Office in Kyiv said the redeployment of personnel to Brussels and Lviv in western Ukraine.
President Joe Biden said late Friday that based on the latest U.S. intelligence, he is now “convinced” that Putin has decided to invade Ukraine in the coming days and attack the capital.
A U.S. military official said an estimated 40 percent to 50 percent of those ground troops had moved to the attack position closer to the border. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. internal assessments, said the change had been going on for about a week and did not necessarily mean Putin had stopped at the invasion.
The lines of communication between Moscow and the West remain open: US and Russian defense leaders spoke on Friday. French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Putin on Sunday almost two hours before a call with the Ukrainian president. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed to meet next week.
Immediate concerns have focused on eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russian insurgents since 2014 in a conflict that has killed about 14,000 people.
Ukraine and separatist leaders have exchanged accusations of escalation. Russia said on Saturday that at least two shells fired from a government-controlled part of eastern Ukraine had crossed the border, but Ukraine’s foreign minister dismissed the statement as a “fake statement”.
Top Ukrainian military officials came under fire while bypassing the front of the nearly eight-year separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. According to the Associated Press journalist, who was on tour, the officials fled to the bomb shelter.
The military closed a key checkpoint leading to the separatist region on Sunday after it came under repeated shelling.
Elsewhere on the front line, the Ukrainian military said it had been ordered not to respond to the fire. Zakhar Leshushun, looking into the distance through a periscope, watched the news all day from the trench where he is near the city of Golden.
“Right now we are not reacting to their fire because …” the soldier began to explain before he was interrupted by the sound of a projectile. “Oh! They’re shooting at us now, aiming at the command post.”
For years, sporadic violence has erupted along the line separating Ukrainian forces from Russian-backed separatists, but the surge in recent days has far exceeded all that international observers have recently recorded: nearly 1,500 explosions in 24 hours .
Denis Pushilin, head of the pro-Russian separatist government in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, cited an “imminent threat of aggression” by Ukrainian forces in a statement calling for weapons. Ukrainian officials have categorically denied plans to seize rebel-held territory by force.
“I appeal to all men in the country who can keep weapons to protect their families, their children, wives, mothers,” Pushylin said. “Together we will achieve the desired victory that we all need.”
A similar statement was made by his colleague in Luhansk region. On Friday, the rebels began evacuating civilians to Russia with an announcement that appears to be part of their and Moscow’s efforts to label Ukraine an aggressor.
Metadata from two videos released by separatists announcing the evacuation of civilians to Russia shows that the files were created two days ago, the AP confirmed. U.S. officials say the Kremlin’s attempts to come up with a basis for the invasion may include staging pre-recorded videos.
The Ukrainian military said two of its soldiers were killed Saturday in a shelling by separatists.
Authorities in the Rostov region of Russia, which borders eastern Ukraine, have declared a state of emergency due to the influx of evacuees. Media reports on Saturday described the chaos in some of the camps designated for their accommodation.
Putin has ordered the Russian government to offer each evacuee 10,000 rubles (about $ 130), equivalent to about half the average monthly salary in eastern Ukraine.
In the separatist regions of Ukraine, as in most of the east of the country, most are Russian-speaking. On Tuesday, Putin repeated statements about “genocide” there, explaining the need to protect them.
One of the evacuees, a resident of Donetsk, who called himself Vyacheslav, blamed the Ukrainian government for his plight.
“Let them calm down,” he said. “It’s our fault we don’t want to speak Ukrainian, right?”