Russia’s strategic nuclear forces held exercises overseen by President Vladimir Putin on Saturday as Washington accused Russian troops massed near Ukraine’s border of moving forward and being “poised to strike”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, said that his country was a “shield” against Russia and deserved more support in the face of a feared Russian invasion.
In a speech at a security conference in Munich, Zelensky condemned “a policy of appeasement” towards Moscow.
“For eight years, Ukraine has been holding back one of the greatest armies in the world,” said Zelensky, who travelled to Munich despite shelling in his country’s conflict-torn east, that left two Ukrainian soldiers dead.
He demanded “clear, feasible timeframes” for Ukraine to join the US-led Nato military alliance — a prospect that Moscow has said would be a red line for its security.
But he said he was willing to meet Vladimir Putin to find out “what the Russian president wants”.
The US was quite unequivocal in its assessment as Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said that Russian forces were beginning to “uncoil and move closer” to the border. “We hope he (Putin) steps back from the brink of conflict,” Austin told a news conference in Lithuania, saying an invasion of Ukraine was not inevitable.
For her part, US Vice President Kamala Harris said: “National borders should not be changed by force.”
“We have prepared economic measures that will be swift, severe, and united,” she said while talking about the consequences of an invasion.
“We will target Russia’s financial institutions and key industries,” she said.
After Kyiv and Moscow traded accusations over fresh incidents of shelling near the border, France and Germany urged all or some of their citizens in Ukraine to leave.
The Kremlin said Russia had successfully test-fired nuclear-capable hypersonic and cruise missiles at sea during the strategic nuclear forces’ military exercises.
Putin observed the exercises on screens with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko from what the Kremlin called a ‘situation centre’.
US President Joe Biden said on Friday he believed Putin would invade in the coming days and Austin said the exercises were stoking concerns around the world.
The drills follow manoeuvres by Russia’s armed forces in the past four months that have included a build-up of troops — estimated by the West to number 150,000 or more — to the north, east and south of Ukraine.
New helicopters and a battle group deployment of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and support equipment have been deployed in Russia, near the border, according to US-based Maxar Technologies, which tracks developments with satellite imagery.
Exodus from border regions
Meanwhile, separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine have declared a full military mobilisation after ordering women and children to evacuate to Russia, citing the threat of an imminent attack by Ukrainian forces, which Kyiv denied.
Kyiv and Western leaders say the mobilisation, evacuation and increased shelling across the ceasefire line this week are part of a Russian plan to create a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine.
Russia’s FSB security service said two shells landed on Russian territory near the border, Russia’s Tass news agency reported. One hit a building in Rostov region but no one was hurt, it said.
Ukraine’s military accused Russia of faking pictures of shells to make out they were Ukrainian, and said mercenaries had arrived in separatist-held eastern Ukraine to stage provocations in collaboration with Russia’s special services.
Explosions were heard in the north of the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, as people got on buses to leave, a witness said.
“It’s really scary. I’ve taken everything I could carry,” said Tatyana, 30, who was boarding a bus with her four-year-old daughter.
Russian news agencies said 10,000 evacuees had arrived so far in Russia. The separatist authorities say they aim to evacuate 700,000 people.