The leaders of the self-proclaimed Lugansk and Donetsk People’s republics located in the historical Donbas region of Ukraine, announced the start of mass evacuations of their territories to Russia on Friday (Feb. 18).
Donetsk leader Denis Pushilin said in a televised address that the evacuation into the Rostov region, located in the southern part of Russia, bordering Ukraine, has been coordinated with “Russian leadership.”
Luhansk leader Leonid Pasechnik followed up with orders to evacuate into Russia shortly afterward.
The two leaders claimed that Ukrainian troops were planning to attack the two territories.
“Ukrainian forces are not planning any offensive operations, and will not use weapons if this might threaten peaceful civilians,” the Ukrainian military said.
The announcements came after the eastern Ukraine conflict zone saw what some sources described as the most intense artillery bombardment for years on Friday.
Authorities of Donetsk and Luhansk on one side, and the Ukrainian government in Kiev on the other, have, over the past few days, accused each other of taking military action that broke the ceasefire agreements between them.
The spike in tensions also comes as Russia has begun to withdraw troops from the borders of Ukraine to their permanent deployment sites following planned military drills – but Ukraine and its allies say they see no evidence of that.
Since last November, the West has been claiming that Russia is planning “an invasion” of Ukraine citing troop movements within Russia. Moscow, in turn, has repeatedly dismissed the allegations and accuses the West of stoking “hysteria.”
Donetsk and Luhansk dominated by Russian-speakers, have since 2014 been controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
Russia’s parliament passed a vote Tuesday calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to recognize the two regions as independent states. Putin has not yet taken that step and the West has signaled Russian recognition of the republics would only escalate tensions.
Meanwhile, Putin instructed the emergency minister to arrange accommodation for residents evacuating the east region of Ukraine, reported RIA on Friday.
Speaking earlier, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said events in the Donbas were “very concerning”, warning that the situation there looked potentially very dangerous.
A powerful explosion was heard in the center of Donetsk, RIA Novosti reported on Friday.
The blast reportedly took place “several dozen meters” away from the government building. Denis Sinenkov, the region’s militia leader, told Interfax that his car was blown up “in the parking lot” and that “no one was hurt.” According to reports with the blast wave from the explosion was powerful enough to have been heard throughout the city.
The United States and its allies have warned Moscow may be attempting to manufacture a “pretext” for an attack on its neighbour by deliberately inflaming the conflict in Donbas.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has regularly reports violations of the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine during the eight-year conflict, in which around 13,000 people have died.
Ukraine is the second biggest country in Europe by area after Russia itself, and home to 40 million people.
Blinken to meet with Lavrov next week
US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov are set to meet late next week, a move giving hope that diplomatic channels remained open. Blinken said on Thursday he had sent a letter to the Russian top diplomat proposing a meeting in Europe provided there was no invasion of Ukraine.
“The Secretary noted in his remarks at the UN Security Council today that, because we believe the only responsible way to resolve this crisis is through diplomacy and dialogue, he had proposed to meet Foreign Minister Lavrov in Europe next week. The Russians have responded with proposed dates for late next week, which we are accepting, provided there is no further Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price said, answering to a question from TASS.
Ukraine observes no Russia attack force units at its border
In a phone call that lasted 105 minutes, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron agreed on the necessity of a diplomatic solution to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, international media reported on Sunday evening (Feb.20).
Earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Macron that Kiev backs ‘immediate’ ceasefire. The Ukrainian leader also tweeted that he would back “the immediate convening” of Trilateral Contact Group, namely Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). “We stand for intensifying the peace process,” Zelensky wrote.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s intelligence sees no Russian attack force units at the border, Defense Minister Alexey Reznikov said in an interview with ICTV.
“As of today, our intelligence observes no attack force units but it doesn’t mean that they cannot deploy them when they want because the risks are still in place,” TASS quoted him as saying. According to the minister, it may take from one to two weeks to deploy such units, “depending on Russia’s plans.”
U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed in principle to a summit over Ukraine, the office of French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday (Feb. 21).
In a statement, the White House said Biden had accepted to hold a summit with Putin “in principle” but only “if an invasion hasn’t happened”.
“We are always ready for diplomacy,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. “We are also ready to impose swift and severe consequences, should Russia instead choose war.”
UPDATE 21/02/2022 21:25
Russia to recognize DPR, LPR – Kremlin
Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), the Kremlin said.
The Russian leader announced his decision in phone calls to French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who voiced disappointment.
“If there is annexation, there will be sanctions, and if there is recognition, I will put the sanctions on the table and the ministers will decide,” the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers.
With reporting by Sputnik News, Al Jazeera, Reuters, The Moscow Times, TASS