Russia may be looking for a pretext for invading Ukraine, officials say

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KYIV, Ukraine — Russian military exercises on the Ukrainian border were extended indefinitely on Sunday, leaving an unrelenting threat hanging over a largely underarmed military and nervous Ukrainian population after a weekend of bombings and evacuations that U.S. officials and Ukrainians warned that this was an effort by Moscow to create a pretext for an invasion.

Belarus’ defense minister said war games in the country, which borders Ukraine and where some 30,000 Russian forces were taking part in the drills, would continue due to heightened tensions in eastern Ukraine. Russian-backed separatists in the region evacuated thousands of civilians ahead of what they said was an imminent assault by Ukrainian forces.

With an estimated 190,000 Russian troops now massed on their country’s borders and in separatist areas, Ukrainian officials have dismissed any intention to launch an attack in the eastern Donbass region, where Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists are holed up. in a military stalemate.

After a weekend of scattered but intensified artillery bombardment, the Ukrainian army shelling in the Donbass was perhaps at its highest level in seven years, stretching across the entire front. US and Ukrainian officials have warned that pro-Moscow separatist leaders have reported false events or staged incidents intended to provide Russia with an excuse to drive deeper into Ukraine.

On Sunday evening, the Ukrainian military issued a statement saying that Russian-backed separatists in the Lugansk region had opened fire with heavy artillery on their own capital “in a bid to blame the Ukrainian military”. “In the absence of any aggressive action from the Ukrainian defenders, the occupiers themselves are blowing up infrastructure in the occupied territories and chaotically firing on cities,” the official said. declaration noted. Russian news agencies reported artillery strikes in the area. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

On Saturday, separatist leaders released a video of a man they said was a Ukrainian spy involved in a Kiev-orchestrated plot to retake territory from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

Russian state broadcaster Channel One aired an interview on Saturday with a man who said he was tasked with blowing up the car of Donetsk’s security chief, as part of a five-day plan to violently retake the city and its surroundings. He said he had smuggled weapons and explosives into the city. The blast was among the events that precipitated the mass evacuations of people living in the breakaway republics that began soon after.

Kiev has repeatedly denied these allegations.

“This morning regular portions of lies and new videos about fictitious events were thrown at us,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in Munich on Saturday during a trip accompanying President Volodymyr Zelensky. “The accumulation of this nonsense only convinces everyone that Ukraine is defending itself against a vicious aggressor who is ready to sacrifice women and children to destroy peace.”

He called the ongoing information war between Ukraine and the West on one side and Russia on the other a “clash of civilizations”.

According to US and Ukrainian officials, Russian propaganda and disinformation is being used to sow confusion and concoct a false narrative about who is really threatening whom. The drills in Belarus, the Biden administration says, are part of a buildup of Russian troops that could be used as a force to invade Ukraine — a step the administration believes Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has decided to take. take.

US officials said on Sunday that US intelligence agencies learned last week that the Kremlin had ordered Russian military units to carry out an invasion. Officials declined to describe the information in detail. But the information prompted President Biden to announce that Mr Putin had made the decision to attack, they said.

Nonetheless, on Sunday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said President Biden was still willing to pursue diplomacy “until the tanks actually roll and the planes actually fly.”

The US government has sent a letter to the United Nations office in Geneva saying it has “credible information” that Russian forces have compiled a list of specific Ukrainian citizens to be killed or sent to detention camps at the following a Russian invasion and takeover. of Ukraine, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The New York Times on Sunday. The letter also stated that Russian forces planned to torture and abduct people who would oppose Russian actions. The Washington Post first reported on the letter on Sunday, and other news outlets reported on a Russian “casualty list” last week.

The extension of military drills to the Ukrainian border came despite repeated assurances from Russia and Belarus that the drills would end this weekend, and it has been cited by Moscow’s critics as further proof that Mr. Putin has pledged to use his foothold in eastern Ukraine to take over the whole country.

“Russian troops remain in Belarus violating all withdrawal guarantees,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said in a statement. Posting on Twitter. “It is a clear preparation to attack Ukraine towards Kiev and the creeping annexation of Belarus,” which has moved closer to Moscow since its strong leader violently suppressed pro-democracy protests in 2020.

The growing sense of threat took on additional resonance on Sunday, eight years to the day, when dozens of pro-democracy protesters in Kiev’s central Maidan square were shot and killed by forces loyal to a Ukrainian government allied with Moscow. .

The massacre helped trigger a chain of events that led to the ousting of Ukraine’s then president – and ultimately the Russian annexation of Crimea and the eruption of a war waged by backed separatists by Russia.

Every year, Iryna Horbachova goes to Maidan Square on February 20 to commemorate the pro-democracy protesters who were killed in 2014, a fight that seems all the more urgent with the threat of a Russian invasion today.

The Maidan was part of an ongoing Ukrainian struggle, said Ms Horbachova, 36, for “our right to live in the kind of Ukraine we want – not the kind that Putin and Russia want to lead us into”.

If eight years ago Ukrainians could not believe that their own police would shoot civilians in the heart of the capital, today they find it hard to believe that a full-scale Russian invasion is possible. The atmosphere in the country is marked by a mixture of determination and apprehension, even panic.

Ukraine’s military has attempted to grow in strength in recent years, especially since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. The United States alone has provided $2.5 billion in military assistance, including high-tech surveillance, communication equipment and drones. In November, the United States delivered about 88 tons of munitions, part of a $60 million military aid package pledged by the Biden administration.

But Ukraine remains largely overwhelmed by Kremlin forces, and members of Mr Zelensky’s ruling Servant of the People party have sought to allay fears of another Russian invasion.

Although the announcement of the continuation of exercises in Belarus was not a prelude to the invasion, the proximity of the troops to Ukraine kept the country in suspense and caused increasing damage to its economy.

For their part, separatist leaders in the breakaway Donbass region took steps over the weekend to create a kind of carnival mirror reflecting what was happening elsewhere in Ukraine.

They warned of an imminent threat, called on men of military age to stay and take up arms against a possible attack from Ukraine, and suspended a series of public activities, including “recreation, entertainment, entertainment, exhibitions, exhibitions, educational, public and other activities. similar events, according to a statement posted on their Telegram channel.

The Kyiv government has repeatedly denied any plans to attack the region, and rebel leaders have produced no evidence to support their claim.

Among the thousands of civilians the separatists have evacuated so far, some have gone to live with relatives in Russia, while others have been temporarily housed in tents by the authorities before being relocated to towns and cities. villages in Russia.

As Moscow has tried to portray the flow of refugees as evidence of Ukraine’s threatening posture, evacuees who passed through the train station in Taganrog, a Russian town perched on the Sea of ​​Azov near the border with Ukraine, seemed helpless, frightened by the warnings of the rebel leaders, but unsure of what awaited them.

The Russian authorities “lied to us”, fumed Lyudmila V. Ladnik, 62, who had left her home in Debaltsevo, part of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

She said she had been told residents of breakaway areas would temporarily stay in Rostov, but on Sunday learned they would be moved further inside Russia, to a city like Kursk. With dismay, she wondered if her evacuation to Russia would take longer than expected.

“We are now calling everyone at home, telling them to stay,” she said.

Commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said in a press release that the refugees are “used to aggravate the situation in order to provoke a new round of bloodshed”.

Ms Horbachova, in Maidan Square, said the last thing she wanted to see in Ukraine was more bloodshed.

“For eight years, we have had war; for eight years, our people have been dying for our identity and for our freedom,” she said in tears. “Of course there is a feeling of anxiety” as the tension mounts day by day. “But it’s not a feeling that forces you to pack your bags, it forces you to be strong and protect your country.”

The report was provided by Ivan Nechepurenko from Taganrog, Russia; Michael Schwirtz from Odessa, Ukraine; Maria Varenikova and Marc Santora from Kyiv; and Julian E. Barnes, Eric Schmitt and Edward Wong of Washington.

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