As tension mounts in Ukraine, Russian troops mass on the border

With tens of thousands of Russian troops massed near Ukraine’s northern border and as tensions escalated in the eastern Donbas region, Western and Russian leaders continued Sunday to engage in a stakes dance bred with equal parts diplomatic bickering and military antics – but with little sign that their efforts could successfully prevent Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II.

In the east, where the Ukrainian government has been mired in a stalemate against Russian-installed separatists for years, observers have reported barrages of bombardment across the ceasefire line established between the warring parties in 2015. And in a step intended to bolster Moscow’s narrative of an impending Ukrainian attack on separatist enclaves, separatist authorities on Sunday suspended recreational, cultural, entertainment and educational events until further notice. Earlier in the weekend, separatists began evacuating thousands of women and children from Ukraine while ordering men of fighting age to prepare for battle.

The escalation of hostilities in the east came as Belarus announced that some 30,000 Russian soldiers would extend their stay beyond the conclusion of joint exercises, contradicting earlier statements that no Russian soldiers would remain on the ground. Belarusian territory after Sunday.

In a statement released by the Belarusian military on Telegram, Belarusian Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Viktor Khrenin said that although the joint exercises – dubbed Allied Resolve 2022 – have ended, “increasing the military activity near the outer borders of the Union State [Russia and Belarus] and the worsening situation in the Donbass” had prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to decide “to continue to control the response forces of the Union State” – a statement implying that would remain in the area indefinitely and fueling fears of an imminent invasion plan.

Later on Sunday, the US Embassy in Moscow issued a security warning stating that “media sources” had reported “threats of attacks against shopping malls, train and metro stations and other public gathering places” in places such as Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Russia. border along Ukraine. The embassy did not specify why the attacks might occur or who would be behind them.

The embassy advised avoiding crowds, carrying proper identification and having evacuation plans that “are not dependent on assistance from the US government”.

The heightened tensions came as Vice President Kamala Harris wrapped up a trip to Munich, Germany on Sunday aimed at bolstering Western alliances.

Meanwhile, President Biden, who said Friday he believed war was imminent, huddled with his national security staff on Sunday. The president and other Western leaders have warned that a Russian disinformation campaign is underway aimed at blaming Ukraine for starting a war – despite a lack of evidence that the country has caused tension with separatists backed by Russia.

“It certainly seems like everything we said was likely to happen before the actual invasion,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Blinken reiterated his intention to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later in the coming week as long as Russia delays any invasion, adding: “[I]It is my responsibility to do everything I can to diplomatically try to prevent a war. And so I will spare no effort to do so.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III agreed there was little hope for tensions to cool.

“I don’t believe it was a bluff,” Austin said on ABC’s “This Week.” Putin “assembled the kind of stuff you would need to carry out a successful invasion”.

Yet Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, insisted that “there is no invasion, and there are no such plans”, in an interview with ” Face the Nation” from CBS in which he dismissed questions about the expansion of exercises in Belarus and other actions that have alarmed the West.

Concluding three days of meetings in Munich with European allies before departing for Washington, Harris stressed unity and solidarity and a commitment to Ukraine.

But she refrained from making further concessions to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a day after his fiery speech at the Munich Security Conference calling on allies to do more to help his country avoid – and potentially defend against – a Russian attack.

“Let’s recognize the position he’s in: his country is virtually surrounded by Russian troops,” Harris said during a 16-minute question-and-answer session with reporters at his hotel. “He came here to say very clearly that he is not alone. In fact, I told him when we met, the United States is on your side.

Harris, however, would not commit the United States to providing additional defense assistance to Ukraine, as Zelensky requested during a meeting with her on Sunday.

“Depending on what happens in the next few days, we will reassess Ukraine’s need and our ability to support it,” she said.

Zelensky risked leaving his vulnerable country to meet with Harris and make a final appeal to allies and security experts gathered in Germany.

“We will defend our land with or without the support of partners,” he said on Saturday. “Let them give us hundreds of modern weapons or 5,000 helmets.”

“We appreciate any help, but everyone needs to understand that it’s not charitable contributions that Ukraine should be asking for,” Zelensky continued. “It is your contribution to the security of Europe and the world, where Ukraine has been a reliable shield for eight years.”

On Sunday, Ukrainians were preparing to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the Maidan protests. Some 50 people were killed on February 20, 2014 during anti-government protests against then-President Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych, who was pro-Moscow and had rejected closer ties with Europe, fled the country the next day. Ultimately, more than 100 Ukrainians died in the protests.

Zelensky has stepped up his country’s move towards Europe, drawing the ire of Putin, who sees Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, as part of a return to a more powerful Russia.

Harris avoided commenting on Zelensky’s stated intention to seek membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Putin demanded that Ukraine be banned from joining NATO as a condition for ending tensions. While Kiev is still far from qualifying for membership, the United States and NATO have rejected Putin’s request.

“I’m not going to question President Zelensky’s desires for his own country,” Harris said, adding that NATO membership “is a process”, which “does not happen overnight” and concerns the 30 countries of the world. the alliance to decide.

Harris also stood firm on the administration’s use of the threat of economic sanctions as a deterrent against Russia. Zelensky urged the West to impose sanctions before a possible invasion, suggesting that doing so after the tanks have crossed its border will not do his country much good.

On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron called Putin in another attempt to find a diplomatic exit ramp to avoid hostilities. But there seemed to be little progress.

A Kremlin statement following Macron’s call said Putin had stressed the need for the United States and NATO to take Moscow’s concerns about long-term security guarantees seriously. Putin blamed the escalation of tension on “provocations by Ukrainian militants” as well as NATO countries sending arms and equipment to Kiev.

He added that the NATO decision encouraged the Ukrainian government to seek a military solution to retake the Donbass region. Putin also accused Kyiv of breaching the Minsk Accords, the 2015 agreement meant to end violence in the Donbass region and reintegrate separatist areas under government control.

The reading of the same meeting at the Elysée Palace indicates that the two leaders agreed to work “intensely to allow the holding of a meeting of the trilateral contact group in the coming hours”, referring to a body which includes representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the Organization. for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The aim would be “to obtain a commitment from all parties to a ceasefire on the line of contact”, the statement said, and that Putin and Macron agreed that they would “prioritize a diplomatic solution to the current crisis and will do everything possible”. to achieve this. »

Khrenin, the Belarusian defense minister, said the joint military drills, involving around 30,000 Russian troops gathered near Ukraine’s northern border over the past 10 days, would continue beyond their end date scheduled for Sunday, according to Russian news operator TASS. The force represents a significant portion of the estimated 150,000 troops positioned for a possible invasion.

Over the weekend, Russian media published images and videos of families traveling to refugee camps set up by the Russian government. Each person coming would receive 10,000 rubles, the equivalent of $130.

Harris said she would join Biden’s emergency National Security Council meeting on Sunday, likely from Air Force Two en route to Washington, and she echoed the administration’s heightened warnings about preparedness. of Russia to an imminent invasion of Ukraine.

“As the president said, we believe Putin has made up his mind,” she said. “Period.”

Stokols staff writers reported from Munich, Germany; Bierman from Dalton, Mass., and Bulos from Kiev, Ukraine.

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