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Ukrainian Russian-backed rebels call to mobilize as Putin oversees nuclear drill

Pro-Russian separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine ordered a full military mobilization Saturday, amid a spike in violence that has heightened fears that Moscow is planning to use an escalation in the conflict as a pretext to invade.

The announcements came ahead of planned large-scale drills involving Russian nuclear forces, overseen by President Vladimir Putin, offering a timely reminder of the country’s nuclear might as Europe faces its gravest security crisis since the Cold War. Ballistic and cruise missiles were launched from land, air and sea, the Kremlin said in a statement Saturday. 

In eastern Ukraine, where the Moscow-supported separatists have been fighting government forces since 2014, Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic,” urged reservists to show up at military enlistment offices in a video released on the chat app Telegram on Saturday.

In neighboring Luhansk, Leonid Pasechnik, leader of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic,” also signed a decree calling for “full combat readiness.”

The separatists control an enclave about the size of New Jersey, where it’s population of around 2 million speak Russian, use the Russian ruble and hundreds of thousands have Russian passports.

Feb. 19, 202201:56

Their statements came as the evacuation of civilians from the rebel-held territories in those regions to neighboring Russia continued.

At one evacuation point at a market in Donetsk, 38-year-old Oksana Feoktisova boarded a bus with her 9-year-old son and her mother. They were accompanied by Feoktisova’s brother Yuri who stayed behind in Donetsk.

“They don’t let men on, and I wouldn’t go anyway frankly,” Yuri told Reuters. “I’m a reservist in any case. I’m an artillery man by birth… I’m loyal to my state, to my people.”

The evacuations come amid a spike in shelling in the area that has stoked fresh global alarm.

“Illegal armed groups, supported by the aggressor country Russian Federation, continue to massively shell the positions of the Ukrainian military. As a result, two of our soldiers were killed and five were wounded today,” said Valeriy Zaluzhnyy, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said they recorded 648 cease-fire violations in the Luhansk region Friday and 222 in Donetsk. As a policy the OSCE does not tend to attribute blame.

In a separate statement, Ukraine’s military said that mercenaries had arrived in separatist-held eastern Ukraine to stage provocations in collaboration with Russia’s special services. “The purpose of these provocations will, of course, be to accuse Ukraine of further escalation,” it said.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Investigative Committee said it had ordered an investigation to be opened following Russian media reports that a Ukrainian shell had exploded in Russia‘s region of Rostov less than a mile away from the border. Ukraine’s military chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi called the reports as “Russian propaganda.”

Feb. 19, 202203:58

Despite U.S. concerns about him leaving the country, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy traveled to the Germany city of Munich on Saturday for a security conference, his office said in a statement. There, he met with Vice President Kamala Harris and other Western leaders.

Harris reiterated to Zelenskyy that the U.S. is committed to supporting Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and they both “agreed on the importance of diplomacy and de-escalation,” according to a White House description of their meeting.

In a speech at the conference, Harris said that the “foundation of European security is under direct threat in Ukraine.” She added that the U.S. “will impose significant and unprecedented economic costs” on Russia were it to invade.

Her message echoed Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Union’s executive commission, who warned Moscow it would have its access to financial markets and high-tech goods limited under Western sanctions.

Harris met separately with von der Leyen and several other world leaders, including Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz and Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the prime minister of Greece, on Saturday to discuss Ukraine diplomacy, a White House official said.

In a later speech, Zelenskyy told the conference that his country would “not attack anyone, but we are ready for anything.” He also called on Putin to meet with him and seek resolution to the crisis, adding that Russia could pick the location for the talks.

“We can’t be passive, we can’t say every day that tomorrow is war,” Zelenskyy said. Asked about rumors that he was planning to leave Ukraine, he said: “I had breakfast in Ukraine today and I am going to have dinner in Ukraine as well. I will not fly away for a long time.”

Asked if President Joe Biden had any plans to meet with Putin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday said that “Biden is always fully prepared to meet if we think that can advance the cause of diplomacy and the cause of peace.” He made the remarks in an interview with Dozhd TV, an independent Russian TV channel.

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 separatists in, eastern Ukraine on Satuday.Alexei Alexandrov / AP

Their remarks came after Biden told reporters on Friday that he believed Putin had already “made the decision” to invade Ukraine, but stressed Moscow should still “choose diplomacy.”

“It is not too late to de-escalate and return to the negotiating table,” Biden said.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin echoed Biden’s remarks during a trip to Lithuania on Saturday. “They are uncoiling and are now poised to strike,” Austin said ahead of talks with Baltic leaders.

Press secretary Jen Psaki said Saturday evening that Biden will convene a meeting of the National Security Council on Sunday on the situation in Ukraine.

Moscow has denied any plans to invade and has attempted to paint Ukraine as the aggressor instead. It said Friday it was closely watching the escalation of shelling in eastern Ukraine, describing the situation as potentially very dangerous.

But the U.S. has warned for weeks Russia may used “false flag” operations including protests and unrest as an excuse to invade Ukraine. Together with its Western allies, it estimates Russia has massed as many as 190,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders. 

The Kremlin now has between 40-50 percent of its military forces around Ukraine in attack position, a U.S. defense official told NBC News Friday. The troops are still several miles from the border, the official said.

Oksana Parafeniuk, Veronika Melkozerova, Associated Press, Reuters, Anastasiia Parafeniuk and Olympia Sonnier contributed.

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