Vladimir Putin launches nuclear drill after parliament authorizes use of force abroad
Russia’s strategic nuclear forces held exercises overseen by President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, and Washington accused Russian troops, who had gathered near Ukraine’s border, of advancing and “ready to strike”.
Amid mounting Western war fears, the White House said US President Joe Biden‘s national security team had told him they still believed Russia could launch an attack in Ukraine “at any time” and he planned to call his top advisers on Sunday to convene to discuss the crisis.
Foreign ministers from the G7 group of rich nations said they had seen no evidence that Russia was reducing its military activities in the region and remained “deeply concerned” about the situation.
After Kiev and Moscow exchanged allegations of renewed bombing near the border, France and Germany ordered all or some of their citizens in Ukraine to leave Ukraine. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Russian forces were beginning to “unwind and move closer to the border”.
“We hope that he (Putin) will step down from the brink of conflict,” Austin told a news conference in Lithuania, saying an invasion of Ukraine is not inevitable.
Russia ordered the military build-up and called on NATO to prevent Ukraine from ever joining the alliance, but says Western warnings that it is planning to invade Ukraine are hysterical and dangerous. Moscow says it’s retreating, but Washington and allies say the build-up is increasing.
Washington and NATO say Moscow’s key demands are a failure, but fears of Putin’s plans are growing in Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy vented his frustration at a security conference in Munich, saying the global security architecture is “almost broken”. He called on the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and Turkey, to meet to work out new security guarantees for his country.
“The rules that the world agreed on decades ago no longer work,” said Zelenskyj. “You’re not keeping up with new threats… This is a cough syrup for when you need a coronavirus vaccine.”
World Bank President David Malpass said Zelenskyy on Saturday that the bank was preparing financing of up to $350 million for Ukraine.
Hypersonic and cruise missiles
The Kremlin said Russia successfully tested hypersonic and cruise missiles at sea during exercises of the nuclear forces. Putin watched the drills on screens with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko from a “situation center.”
In his most pointed prediction yet, Biden said Friday he was confident Putin made the decision to invade Ukraine in the coming days, and Austin said Saturday nuclear drills were causing global concern.
“President Biden continues to monitor the evolving situation in Ukraine and will be regularly updated on events on the ground by his national security team,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. “You have reiterated that Russia can launch an attack on Ukraine at any time.”
The G7 foreign ministers called on Russia to choose the path of diplomacy. “As a first step, we expect Russia to implement the announced reduction in its military activities along the Ukrainian borders. We have seen no evidence of this reduction,” they said in a statement.
Zelenskyi said he had an “urgent” phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron and discussed possible ways of immediate de-escalation and political-diplomatic agreement. Macron is scheduled to speak to Putin on Sunday.
The nuclear exercises follow maneuvers by Russian forces over the past four months that have included a surge in troops – estimated by the West at 150,000 or more – in northern, eastern and southern Ukraine.
New helicopters and a battle group of tanks, armored personnel carriers and support equipment have been moved to locations in Russia near the border, according to US-based Maxar Technologies, which is following developments with satellite imagery.
Moscow-based analysts said Saturday’s drills aimed to send a message to take Russia’s demands seriously.
“Ignoring Russia’s legitimate rights in this area affects stability not only on the European continent but also in the world,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted by his ministry as saying when telling his French counterpart over the phone.
A NATO official said the alliance had moved personnel from Kiev to the western city of Lviv and Brussels for security reasons. The United States and other countries have moved diplomats to Lviv.
Russian-backed rebels seized part of eastern Ukraine in 2014 and Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Kiev says more than 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the east.
Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine have announced a full military mobilization after ordering women and children to evacuate to Russia, citing the threat of an imminent attack by Ukrainian forces, which Kiev has denied.
Kiev and Western leaders say the mobilization, evacuation and increased shelling are part of a Russian plan to create a pretext for an invasion.
Russia’s security service FSB said two grenades landed on Russian territory near the border, Russia’s Tass news agency reported.
The Ukrainian military accused Russia of faking images of grenades to present them as Ukrainian and said mercenaries had arrived in separatist-held eastern Ukraine to stage provocations in cooperation with Russian special forces.
Ukraine’s foreign minister called for an independent international investigation into the alleged incidents, and the military said two soldiers were killed in pro-Russian separatist shelling in eastern Ukraine.
The two Russian-backed, self-proclaimed republics in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions were hit by more than 1,400 blasts on Friday, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said. And nearly 2,000 ceasefire violations were recorded in the region by OSCE monitors on Saturday, a diplomatic source told Reuters.
Multiple blasts were heard overnight through Sunday in the center of the separatist-held city of Donetsk, a Reuters reporter said. The origin of the explosions was unclear. There was no immediate comment from separatist authorities or Kiev.
“It’s really scary. I took everything I could carry,” said Tatyana, 30, who boarded a bus with her 4-year-old daughter.
Russian news agencies said 10,000 evacuees had arrived in Russia. Separatist leaders want to evacuate 700,000 people.
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