The Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces take part in a military drill outside Kyiv on Sunday. AFP
Russia extended military drills near Ukraine’s northern borders on Sunday amid increased fears that two days of sustained shelling along the contact line between soldiers and Russa-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine could spark an invasion.
Ukraine’s president appealed for a ceasefire. Sporadic shelling across the line dividing Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists in that region increased sharply last week and continued on Sunday.
People, who were evacuated from separatist-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine, board a train before leaving the city of Taganrog. Reuters
Speaking to CNN, Blinken said all signs suggested Russia was about to invade. Russia has repeatedly denied such plans. “Everything we are seeing suggests that this is dead serious, that we are on the brink of an invasion,” Blinken said, adding that the West was equally prepared if Moscow invades. “...Until the tanks are actually rolling, and the planes are flying, we will use every opportunity and every minute we have to see if diplomacy can still dissuade President (Vladimir) Putin from carrying this forward.”
US President Joe Biden is willing to meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin “at any time” to defuse Ukraine war tensions, Blinken said. Putin and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, agreed in a phone call on the need for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in eastern Ukraine, both governments said.
A French presidential adviser said the two agreed that a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), with representatives from Ukraine and Russia, should be held on Monday.
Poland, currently the OSCE chair, earlier said that at Ukraine’s request it was convening an extraordinary session of the council, which is dedicated to preventing armed conflict, on Monday.
Belarus did not say how long Russian troops in Belarus - estimated by Nato to number 30,000 - might now remain in the country, which lies north of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces take part in a military drill outside Kyiv. AFP
Belarus Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin said the focus of the extended exercises was “to ensure an adequate response and de-escalation of military preparations of ill-wishers near our common borders.” The Kremlin did not comment on the Belarus drills. The Macron adviser said that Putin had reiterated that the troops would leave Belarus after the exercises. Nato says Russia could use the troops in Belarus as part of an invasion force to attack Ukraine.
Moscow denies any such intention. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the repeated warnings by the West that Russia was about to invade were provocative and could have adverse consequences, which he did not spell out.
Russia says the West has raised tensions by sending Nato reinforcements to eastern Europe during the crisis. Evidence suggests that Russia is planning “the biggest war in Europe since 1945,” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the BBC. “All the signs are that the plan has already in some senses begun,” he said on Saturday from Munich where world leaders are meeting for an annual security conference. Intelligence suggests Russia intends to launch an invasion that will encircle Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Johnson told the BBC.
“I’m afraid to say that the plan we are seeing is for something that could be really the biggest war in Europe since 1945 just in terms of sheer scale.
Western countries are preparing sanctions they say would be wide-reaching against Russian companies and individuals in case of an invasion.
Evacuees from eastern Ukraine arrive at a temporary accommodation centre on the outskirts of Voronezh. Reuters
Johnson said in a BBC interview that such sanctions could include restrictions on Russian businesses’ access to the dollar and the pound. However, he acknowledged such threats may not deter Moscow.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on Sunday for an immediate ceasefire in the eastern part of the country. Macron blamed the separatists for the renewed hostilities, while Putin blamed Ukraine, the French presidential adviser said.
"It's certainly not a sign that things are moving in the right direction. It's certainly not a sign that Mr Putin has any intention to de-escalate. And it's certainly not a sign that he is recommitting himself to a diplomatic path forward," Kirby told "Fox News Sunday."
"We want good relations...and really don't want to burn bridges," Putin told both houses of parliament. "But if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn down these bridges, they should know that Russia's response will be swift and harsh."
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