Ukraine crisis: Russia will organize nuclear exercises

KYIV, UKRAINE — Russia announced massive nuclear drills as Western leaders on Friday sought ways to avert another war in Europe amid rising East-West tensions, after unusually severe US warnings that Moscow could order an invasion of Ukraine at any time.

Immediate concerns have centered on the volatile frontlines in eastern Ukraine, where a recent spate of shelling tore through the walls of a kindergarten and basic communications were disrupted. Western officials, focused on around 150,000 Russian troops stationed around Ukraine’s borders, fear the long-simmering conflict could provide the spark for a wider war.

The drumbeat of warnings that a bigger conflict could start at any moment continued on Friday after US President Joe Biden warned that Washington saw no signs of a promised Russian withdrawal – but instead saw more troops heading towards the border with Ukraine.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the United States believed Russia could launch an attack “at any time” and also said he had still seen no sign of the promised Russian withdrawal. He will meet Friday with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Even as Russia claimed to be withdrawing its troops from large-scale military exercises that had raised fears of invasion, the Kremlin reminded the world that it has one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, announcing exercises of its nuclear forces for the weekend. Strong Russian offers this week eclipsed continued diplomacy to defuse the Ukraine crisis.

NATO allies are also showing might, bolstering their military forces around Eastern Europe, but insist the actions are purely defensive and to show their unity in the face of Russian threats.

The United States has announced a $6 billion sale of 250 tanks to Poland, a NATO member that has been occupied or attacked by Russia in centuries past. Announcing the deal, Austin said Russia’s military buildup had only invigorated NATO instead of intimidating it, as Moscow had hoped.

Meanwhile, world leaders gathered at the Munich Security Conference warned that Europe’s security balance was under threat. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the situation “calls into question the fundamental principles of the European peace order”.

“Even steps, millimeters towards peace are better than a big step towards war,” she said.

Moscow has denied any intention to attack its neighbour, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the Western warning of an imminent invasion “smiley” and “false” in remarks broadcast on Friday.

Despite Russian denials, Washington and its allies fear the long-simmering separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine could be used as an excuse for an invasion, though they did not provide details.

With tensions already at their highest level since the Cold War, Russia’s military has announced that President Vladimir Putin will oversee a massive exercise of the country’s nuclear forces on Saturday that will involve multiple practice missile launches – a reminder shock of the country’s nuclear power amid the crisis. confrontation with the West.

As the Kremlin insists it has no intention of invading, it has urged the West to keep Ukraine out of NATO and roll back alliance forces from Eastern Europe – demands categorically rejected by Western allies.

Biden planned to speak by phone Friday with transatlantic leaders about bolstering the Russian military and continuing deterrence and diplomacy efforts.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed some US intelligence findings in Thursday’s address to the UN Security Council, warning that Russia could create a false pretext for an invasion with a “so-called bombing terrorist” inside Russia, a staged drone strike, “a fake or even a real chemical weapons attack.” He accused the invasion of opening with cyberattacks, as well as missile strikes and bombs across Ukraine, describing the entry of Russian troops and their advance on kyiv, a city of nearly 3 million people. inhabitants, and other key targets.

Despite stern American warnings, Ukrainian officials have sought to project calm, with Oleksii Danilov, head of the National Security and Defense Council, saying late Thursday that there were no signs that a massive Russian invasion was coming. imminent.

“We don’t know the threat by any means, but the possibility of escalation is considered relatively low regarding a full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told lawmakers on Friday.

Nonetheless, U.S. and European officials were on high alert for any Russian attempt at a so-called false flag operation, according to a Western official familiar with intelligence findings. Ukrainian government officials shared intelligence with allies suggesting the Russians may attempt to bomb areas of the Luhansk region controlled by Moscow-backed separatists on Friday morning as part of an effort to create a false reason to take military action, according to the official who was not authorized to comment publicly.

The region saw a sharp increase in shelling on Thursday, with observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reporting more than 500 explosions before tensions eased in the evening. Ukrainian authorities and separatists have traded accusations of breaching an uneasy truce in the nearly 8-year-old conflict in eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland, called Donbass. The conflict erupted shortly after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and claimed 14,000 lives.

Ukraine’s military command said shells hit a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska, wounding three people and knocking out electricity to half the town. The rebels said nearly 19 houses were damaged by Ukrainian fire.

On Friday morning, separatist authorities in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions reported renewed shelling by Ukrainian forces along the tense line of contact and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the situation was ” potentially very dangerous”.

Ukrainian officials accused the rebels of stepping up shelling in hopes of provoking a retaliatory attack by government forces.

Ukrainian military leader Valerii Zaluzhnyi said he “does not foresee any offensive operations or bombing of civilians”, adding that “our actions are purely defensive”.

But amid fears that a wider conflict could yet arise, a wave of diplomacy is expected this week.

In addition to the call between Russian and US defense chiefs, Blinken is expected to meet with his Russian counterpart next week.

Meanwhile, Putin met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Friday to discuss ongoing joint exercises in Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north. The massive exercise involving Russian forces displaced from the Far East has fueled Western fears they could use it to cut a short path to the Ukrainian capital.

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Isachenkov reported from Moscow and Superville from Washington. Lorne Cook in Brussels, Matthew Lee and Karl Ritter in Munich, Angela Charlton in Paris, Jill Lawless in London, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Aamer Madhani and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington, and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed to this report

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