Ukraine rebels mobilise troops amid Russia invasion fears

In new signs of fears that a war could start within days, Germany and Austria tell their citizens to leave Ukraine



An instructor watches as civilians train with members of the Georgian Legion, a paramilitary unit formed mainly by ethnic Georgian volunteers to fight against the Russian aggression in Ukraine. — AP
An instructor watches as civilians train with members of the Georgian Legion, a paramilitary unit formed mainly by ethnic Georgian volunteers to fight against the Russian aggression in Ukraine. — AP

By AP

Published: Sat 19 Feb 2022, 8:14 PM

Pro-Russia separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine ordered a full military mobilisation on Saturday while Western leaders made increasingly dire warnings that a Russia invasion of its neighbour appeared imminent.

In new signs of fears that a war could start within days, Germany and Austria told their citizens to leave Ukraine. German air carrier Lufthansa cancelled flights to the capital, Kyiv, and to Odessa, a Black Sea port that could be a key target in an invasion.

Nato’s liaison office in Kyiv said it was relocating staff to Brussels and to the western Ukraine city of Lviv. Meanwhile, top Ukrainian military officials came under a shelling attack during a tour of the front of the nearly eight-year separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The officials fled to a bomb shelter before hustling from the area.

Violence in eastern Ukraine has spiked in recent days as Ukraine and the two regions held by the rebels each accused the other of escalation. Russia on Saturday said at least two shells fired from a government-held part of eastern Ukraine landed across the border, but Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba dismissed claim as “a fake statement”.

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Sporadic violence has broken out for years along the line separating Ukrainian forces from the Russia-backed rebels, but the recent shelling and bombing spike could set off a full-scale war.

The United States and many European countries have alleged for months that Russia, which has moved about 150,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, is trying to create pretexts to invade.

“They are uncoiling and are now poised to strike,” US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin said on Saturday during a visit to Lithuania.

US Vice-President Kamala Harris met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, opening the meeting by saying the world was at “a decisive moment in history”.

Zelenskyy suggested that the West bore some responsibility by not responding more forcefully when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014.

“When a bomb crater appears in the school yard, children have a question — has the world forgotten its mistakes of the 20th century? What attempts at appeasement lead to!” the Ukrainian leader said.

Earlier Saturday, Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russia separatist government in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, cited an “immediate threat of aggression” from Ukrainian forces in his announcement. Ukrainian officials vehemently denied having plans to take rebel-controlled areas by force.

“I appeal to all the men in the republic who can hold weapons to defend their families, their children, wives, mothers,” Pushilin said. “Together we will achieve the coveted victory that we all need.”

A similar statement followed from his counterpart in the Luhansk region. On Friday, the rebels began evacuating civilians to Russia with an announcement that appeared to be part of their and Moscow’s efforts to paint Ukraine as the aggressor.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the evacuation orders could be a tactic to provide the spark for a broader attack.

“To say it very clearly, Ukraine did not give any grounds for the evacuation that was ordered yesterday,” she said. “Those are the facts on the ground. We must not allow supposed reasons for war to be constructed out of hot air.”

US President Joe Biden said late on Friday that based on the latest American intelligence he was now “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine and assault the capital.

“As of this moment, I’m convinced he’s made the decision,” Biden said. “We have reason to believe that.” He reiterated that the assault could occur in the “coming days.”

Meanwhile, Russia conducted massive nuclear drills on Saturday. The Kremlin said Putin, who pledged to protect Russia’s national interests against what it sees as encroaching Western threats, was watching the drills together with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko from the situation room.

Notably, the planned exercise involves the Crimea-based Black Sea Fleet. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula after seizing it from Ukraine in 2014.


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