Kremlin brinkmanship along the Ukrainian border escalated on Friday, with President Vladimir Putin accusing Kyiv of intentionally stoking tensions in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists ordered an evacuation of civilians to Russia.
Ukrainian security services vociferously denied any unilateral moves in the region. But the increased Russian sabre-rattling reinforced the view in several western capitals, including Washington, that Putin was creating a pretence to invade.
The French and German foreign ministers issued a joint statement condemning the separatists’ claims that Kyiv was preparing to attack the region, saying there was no evidence of any Ukrainian provocation.
“We do not see any grounds for these allegations and urge Russia to use its influence over the self-proclaimed republics to encourage restraint and contribute to de-escalation,” the French and German ministers said.
“We are concerned that staged incidents could be misused as a pretext for possible military escalation,” they added.
Putin made his allegations on Friday after meeting his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in Moscow. They came as the Russian defence ministry said it planned to hold nuclear exercises, which US officials have interpreted as a show of strength by Moscow to Nato.
“We are seeing an escalation in the Donbas,” the Russian president said.
At the same time, Putin denied Russia was planning to invade, adding: “Of course, we are looking at what is happening around the world and around us. But we have clearly defined guidelines in line with the national interests of the Russian people and the Russian state.”
Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, which Russian-backed separatists have controlled since 2014, has long been seen by US and allied intelligence officials as the most likely place for Putin to instigate a conflict.
Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, claimed in a video message that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky had given the Ukrainian army orders to attack the separatists “in the next few hours”. He did not provide evidence.
Asked on Russian state TV if “things are heading for all-out war,” Pushilin replied: “Unfortunately, yes.”
But Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, “categorically” denied what he called “Russian disinformation reports” on Kyiv’s alleged offensive operations or acts of sabotage. “Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas,” he said.
Putin dispatched his acting emergencies minister to deal with a possible influx of people from the Donbas and ordered that each refugee in Rostov receive a one-time payment of Rbs10,000 ($130), according to state newswire RIA Novosti.
Ukraine’s army says it recorded 60 ceasefire violations in the past 24 hours in the war-torn region, including 43 artillery salvos, which it described as attempts by Russia and its proxies to trigger a pretext for further aggression.
The developments cast a pall over an annual meeting of western defence officials in Munich, where diplomats from several Nato allies issued warnings that Putin appeared dead-set on an invasion.
“A new war threatens to break out in the middle of our Europe,” Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, said in a speech to the Munich Security Conference. “This is one of the most dangerous moments, where from provocation and disinformation we can see escalation.”
Michael Carpenter, US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said the US estimated Russia had increased its troop deployments near the Ukrainian border to more than 169,000 and described it as “the most significant military mobilisation” on the continent since the second world war.
Late on Friday, the UK said it had temporarily relocated its embassy from Kyiv to Lviv in the western part of Ukraine.
In Washington, Daleep Singh, US deputy national security adviser, warned Russia that the sanctions package being put together by the US and allies would be targeting the “commanding heights of the Russian economy and the Russian state”.
Russia would be facing “less foreign capital, higher borrowing costs, less investment, and lower growth,” Singh said, though he acknowledged that a cut-off from the Swift international payments system, which underpins trillions of dollars of transactions a year, would not be included in the initial round of sanctions.
Russia’s decision to conduct nuclear drills added to the mounting tensions. The defence ministry said on Friday that units from its air force, army and navy would take part in the drills to test its launch crews and personnel as well as its nuclear and conventional weaponry. Putin will personally supervise the drills.
Although the Kremlin said the annual nuclear exercises — which were not held in 2020 or 2021 because of the pandemic — were long planned, the last time the exercises were moved to February from their usual autumn timeframe was shortly before Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, told reporters the exercises were regular and should not “give anyone cause for questions and concern”.
Despite the sabre-rattling, Moscow also said it would pursue talks with western powers after Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, invited his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to meet in Europe next week to discuss “mutual security concerns”. Russia’s ambassador to the UK said the meeting could be held in Geneva or Finland, according to Interfax.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington and Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London