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War fears mount as Putin to oversee drills, Zelensky to meet allies

19 Feb, 2022
The Kremlin continues to insist that it has no plans to attack its neighbour even as Russian navy assets maneuvered off Crimea. AFP/File
The Kremlin continues to insist that it has no plans to attack its neighbour even as Russian navy assets maneuvered off Crimea. AFP/File

Russia's leader will oversee major military drills along Ukraine's borders on Saturday, further escalating tensions after Washington said Moscow would invade within days, and Ukraine's president headed to Europe to drum up support.

Artillery shelling in the east of Ukraine and orders from Russian-backed separatists for civilians to evacuate the region Friday inflamed an already febrile situation as Washington insisted Moscow was encircling its pro-Western neighbour.

The Kremlin continues to say it has no plans to attack.

US President Joe Biden said that the invasion would come in the next week or days and that his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin had "made the decision" to invade. But Biden left the door open for a diplomatic resolution.

"Russia has a choice between war and all the suffering it will bring or diplomacy that will make a future for everyone," Biden said at the White House Friday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was due to travel to Germany Saturday to meet Western leaders, with talks between him and US Vice President Kamala Harris expected.

Biden said it "may not" be wise for Ukraine's leader to leave his country as war fears reached a fever pitch.

The United States says that with an estimated 149,000 Russian troops on Ukraine's borders -- as many as 190,000, when including the Russian-backed separatist forces -- an attack is inevitable.

The Russians have never given a figure for the deployment along the border with Ukraine nor how many are taking part in ongoing drills with neighbouring Belarus.

Compounding fears, Russia's defence ministry announced that President Vladimir Putin would personally oversee previously scheduled drills involving nuclear-capable missiles on Saturday.

'Change the dynamics'

"He's focussed on trying to convince the world he has the ability to change the dynamics in Europe in a way that he cannot," Bided added.

There were growing fears that a spark, which Washington warns could be a deliberate "false flag" incident orchestrated by Moscow, could set off the largest military confrontation in Europe since World War II.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, attending the Munich Security Conference, warned the size of the assembled Russian force far exceeded that needed for military drills, and that Russia had the capacity to invade without warning.

France and Germany have urged Russia to use its influence on rebels in Ukraine's disputed east to "encourage restraint and contribute to de-escalation".

But on the ground, a spike in clashes has fed a growing sense of dread.

An AFP reporter near the front between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists in the Lugansk region heard explosions and saw damaged civilian buildings on Kyiv's side of the line.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said Saturday they had seen a significant rise in the number of attacks along the front line, particularly in the separatist areas of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Attempting to reverse the aggressor narrative, Moscow-backed leaders have accused Kyiv of planning an offensive to retake the eastern territories. The evacuations of civilians there were said to be in response to worries about a government attack.

There were also reports in Russian media that an oil pipeline had exploded in Lugansk.

But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who will meet his Russian counterpart for talks Thursday according to Biden, accused the Kremlin of mounting a propaganda campaign to create an excuse for war.