Nato relocates staff from Kyiv as fighting escalates in Ukraine
Ukrainian troops patrol at the frontline outside the town of Novoluhanske, eastern Ukraine, on Saturday. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images
Nato has relocated Ukraine staff from the capital Kyiv for safety reasons as Washington accused Russian troops massed near the Ukrainian border of advancing and being “poised to strike”.
Staff were being relocated to Lviv in the west of the country and to Brussels for safety reasons, a Nato official said on Saturday, confirming a report by Norwegian daily VG.
“The safety of our personnel is paramount, so staff have been relocated to Lviv and Brussels. The Nato offices in Ukraine remain operational,” the official said, without giving any details on the number and jobs of those moved.
Nato’s move comes as Ukraine and Russia-backed separatist leaders in the east accused each other of escalation.
Almost 2,000 ceasefire violations were registered in eastern Ukraine by monitors for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe on Saturday, a diplomatic source told Reuters. Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russia rebels in the east since 2014 in a conflict that has killed some 14,000 people.
With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops now posted around Ukraine’s borders, there are concerns the long-simmering separatist conflict could provide the spark for a broader attack.
With western fears of war rising, foreign ministers from the G7 group of rich nations said they had seen no evidence Russia is reducing its military activity in the area and remained “gravely concerned” about the situation. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Russian forces were beginning to “uncoil and move closer” to the border. “We hope he [Putin] steps back from the brink of conflict,” Mr Austin told a news conference in Lithuania, saying an invasion of Ukraine was not inevitable.
Russia announced this week that it was pulling back forces from vast military exercises, but US officials said they saw no sign of a pullback and instead observed more troops moving toward the border with Ukraine.
On Saturday, top Ukrainian military officials came under a shelling attack during a tour of the front of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The officials fled to a bomb shelter before leaving the area, according to a journalist from the Associated Press who was on the tour.
Earlier on Saturday, separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine ordered a full military mobilisation, amid a spike of violence in the war-torn region and fears in the West that Russia might use it as a pretext for an invasion.
Russia on Saturday said at least two shells fired from a government-held part of eastern Ukraine landed across the border.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba dismissed the claim as “a fake statement”. The Ukrainian ambassador to Ireland Larysa Gerasko said on Twitter: “Ukraine resolutely refutes all accusations of any alleged Ukrainian shells falling on the Russian territory.”
Ukraine’s military said two soldiers had been killed in shelling by pro-Russian separatists in the east.
Denis Pushilin, head of the pro-Russian separatist government in the Donetsk region, released a statement on Saturday announcing a full troop mobilisation and urging reservists to show up at military enlistment offices.
A similar announcement quickly followed from Leonid Pasechnik, separatist leader in the Luhansk region.
Mr Pushilin cited an “immediate threat of aggression” from Ukrainian forces, accusations that Ukrainian officials vehemently denied earlier.
He said: “I appeal to all the men in the republic who can hold weapons to defend their families, their children, wives, mothers. Together we will achieve the coveted victory that we all need.”
The announcement came as a mass evacuation of women, children and the elderly from the rebel-held territories in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to neighbouring Russia got under way. By Saturday morning, more than 6,600 residents of the rebel-controlled areas were evacuated to Russia, according to separatist officials.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Saturday said he wanted to convene a meeting of global powers to secure new security guarantees for Ukraine because the current global system is too weak.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Mr Zelenskiy also called on members of the Nato alliance to be honest about whether they wanted Ukraine to join.
Mr Zelenskiy said he had an “urgent” phone conversation with the French president Emmanuel Macron and discussed possible ways of immediate de-escalation and political-diplomatic settlement in eastern Ukraine.
He also met US vice-president Kamala Harris in Munich and said his country is looking for “peace” and was looking for specific support from the US for its army.
US president Joe Biden said on Friday he was now “convinced” his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin had decided to invade Ukraine and assault the capital, Kyiv.
After weeks of saying the US was not sure if Mr Putin had made the final decision, Mr Biden said that his judgment had changed, citing American intelligence. “We have reason to believe the Russian forces are planning to and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week, in the coming days,” he said.
“As of this moment, I’m convinced he’s made the decision.”
Russia also conducted massive nuclear drills on Saturday. Mr Putin observed the exercises on screens with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko from what the Kremlin called a “situation centre”.
The drills involved launches from warships, submarines and warplanes as well as from land that struck targets on land and at sea, the Kremlin said.
Mr Biden reiterated his threat of crushing economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia if it does invade, and pressed Mr Putin to reconsider. He said the US and its western allies were more united than ever to ensure Russia pays a steep price for any invasion.
As further indication that the Russians are preparing for a major military push, a US defence official said an estimated 40 per cent to 50 per cent of the ground forces deployed in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border have moved into attack positions closer to the border.
That shift has been under way for about a week, other officials have said, and does not necessarily mean Mr Putin has decided to begin an invasion.
Lines of communication remain open. The US and Russian defence chiefs spoke on Friday, and US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov agreed to meet next week.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the threat to global security is “more complex and probably higher” than during the cold war.
He told a security conference in Munich that a small mistake or miscommunication between major powers could have catastrophic consequences.– Reuters/AP