Ukrainian officials come under shelling amid fears of Russian attack

Ukrainian troops patrol at the frontline outside the town of Novoluhanske, eastern Ukraine, on Saturday. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

Top Ukrainian military officials came under a shelling attack during a tour of the front of the separatist 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.

Ukraine and the two regions held by the Russia-backed 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.

Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba dismissed the claim as “a fake statement”.

Ukraine’s military said shelling killed a soldier early on Saturday in the government-held part of the Donetsk region and that separatist forces were placing artillery in residential areas to try to provoke a response.

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.

An elderly woman and a boy look through a bus window, waiting to be evacuated to Russia, in Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine on Saturday. Photograph: Alexei Alexandrov/AP

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.

Security guarantees

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. He met US vice-president Kamala Harris in Munich and said his country is looking for “peace”. Mr Zelenskiy also said Ukraine was looking for specific support from the US for its army.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks at the Munich Security Conference. Photograph: Ronald Wittek/EPA

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.”

His comments at the White House followed a day of rising violence that included a humanitarian convoy hit by shelling and a car bombing in the eastern city of Donetsk.

Pro-Russian rebels began evacuating civilians from the conflict zone with an announcement that appeared to be part of Moscow’s efforts to paint Ukraine as the aggressor instead.

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.

The official also said the number of Russian ground units known as battalion tactical groups in the border area had grown to as many as 125, up from 83 two weeks ago. Each group has 750 to 1,000 soldiers.

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.

Eastern conflict

Immediate worries focused on eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russia rebels 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, the long-simmering separatist conflict could provide the spark for a broader attack.

Shelling and shooting are common along the line that separates Ukrainian forces and the rebels, but targeted violence is unusual in rebel-held cities.

Separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions that form Ukraine’s industrial heartland known as the Donbas announced they were evacuating civilians to Russia.

Mr Pushilin, the head of the Donetsk rebel government, said women, children and the elderly would go first, and that Russia has prepared facilities for them.

He alleged in a video statement that Mr Zelensky was going to order an imminent offensive in the area.

Metadata from two videos posted by the separatists announcing the evacuation show that the files were created two days ago, The Associated Press confirmed.

US authorities have alleged that the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign could include staged, pre-recorded videos.

Authorities began moving children from an orphanage in Donetsk, and other residents boarded buses for Russia. Long lines formed at gas stations as more people prepared to leave on their own.

Mr Putin has ordered the government to offer a payment of 10,000 rubles (about €114) to each evacuee, equivalent to about half of an average monthly salary in the war-ravaged Donbas region.

By Saturday morning, more than 6,600 residents of the rebel-controlled areas were evacuated to Russia, according to separatist officials, who have announced plans to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people.

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.

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.

Asked about western warnings of a possible Russian invasion on Wednesday that did not materialise, Mr Putin said: “There are so many false claims, and constantly reacting to them is more trouble than it’s worth.

“We are doing what we consider necessary and will keep doing so.

“We have clear and precise goals conforming to national interests.” – Reuters/AP