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Europe on the brink

Observers report 1,500 ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine as thousands flee

Artillery fire spikes as fears mount Russia is paving the way for an invasion; 2 Ukrainian soldiers killed; pro-Russia separatists mobilize for war and evacuate civilians

  • A Ukrainian soldier enters a shelter near the line of separation between Ukraine-held territory and rebel-held territory near Zolote, Ukraine, February 19, 2022. (AP/Evgeniy Maloletka)
    A Ukrainian soldier enters a shelter near the line of separation between Ukraine-held territory and rebel-held territory near Zolote, Ukraine, February 19, 2022. (AP/Evgeniy Maloletka)
  • A Ukrainian serviceman lights his weapon at the conflict line near Zolote, Ukraine, February 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
    A Ukrainian serviceman lights his weapon at the conflict line near Zolote, Ukraine, February 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
  • A Ukrainian soldier sits in an observation point near the frontline village of Krymske, Luhansk region, in eastern Ukraine, February 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
    A Ukrainian soldier sits in an observation point near the frontline village of Krymske, Luhansk region, in eastern Ukraine, February 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
  • Ukrainian troops patrol at the frontline outside the town of Novoluhanske, eastern Ukraine, on February 19, 2022. (ARIS MESSINIS / AFP)
    Ukrainian troops patrol at the frontline outside the town of Novoluhanske, eastern Ukraine, on February 19, 2022. (ARIS MESSINIS / AFP)
  • A Ukrainian soldier passes by houses in the village of Novoluhanske, Luhansk region, Ukraine, on February 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Oleksandr Ratushniak)
    A Ukrainian soldier passes by houses in the village of Novoluhanske, Luhansk region, Ukraine, on February 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Oleksandr Ratushniak)
  • Tanks move during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus, February 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr)
    Tanks move during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus, February 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr)
  • In this photo made from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on February 19, 2022, Russian marines take their position during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
    In this photo made from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on February 19, 2022, Russian marines take their position during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

European observers reported over 1,500 ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine, including artillery and mortar fire, as thousands of civilians fled the area on Saturday and war appeared increasingly imminent.

Ukraine’s president pleaded for help from western countries, pro-Russian separatists mobilized for war and western leaders made increasingly dire warnings about Russian machinations.

The shelling in the eight-year conflict has spiked sharply in recent days, as fears mount that Russia is paving the way for an invasion of Ukraine designed to reverse its pro-Western course. Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged to protect Russia’s national interests against what it sees as encroaching Western threats.

Observers from the OSCE European security body said Saturday that eastern Ukraine had seen the most ceasefire violations so far in a single day during the current crisis.

In a report covering attacks on Friday, its monitors recorded 591 breaches in Donetsk and 975 violations in neighboring Lugansk, two regions partly held by Russian-backed separatists.

Ukraine’s Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy experienced the clashes first-hand Saturday, ducking for cover as mortar shells fell within a few hundred meters of him while he toured the frontline with reporters.

Ukraine’s army and separatist forces traded accusations of shellfire. Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed on the front line on Saturday, the first fatalities in the conflict in over a month.

European countries and the US have said they believe Moscow is trying to create a pretext for an attack by falsifying violent incidents on the ground and having proxy outlets put out false information.

Pro-Russia separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which form Ukraine’s industrial heartland known as the Donbas, said that thousands of residents of the rebel-controlled areas had been evacuated to Russia.

Russia has issued about 700,000 passports to residents of the rebel-held territories. Claims that Russian citizens are being endangered might be used as justification for military action.

A Ukrainian serviceman stands in a shelter on a position at the line of separation between Ukraine-held territory and rebel-held territory near Zolote, Ukraine, February 19, 2022. (AP/Evgeniy Maloletka)

The rebels declared general mobilizations in the two regions, calling up men to fight even as they announced the mass evacuations of women and children into Russia.

Western leaders have voiced increasingly shrill warnings of a potential conflagration.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday said a Russian invasion appeared imminent and that Moscow’s “plan has already in some senses begun.”

“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,” Johnson said.

US President Joe Biden said on Friday he was “convinced” that Russia would further invade Ukraine within days.

The White House said on Saturday that Biden will convene the National Security Council to discuss Ukraine.

A Ukrainian soldier listens to artillery fire in a trench near the line of separation between Ukraine-held territory and rebel-held territory near Zolote, Ukraine, Saturday, February 19, 2022. (AP/Evgeniy Maloletka)

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Saturday warned Russia was stepping up “manipulation” of information to support what looks like fabricated pretexts for military escalation.

“The EU is extremely concerned that staged events… could be used as a pretext for possible military escalation,” Borrell said in a statement. “The EU is also witnessing an intensification of information manipulation efforts to support such objectives.”

The warning came as Russian state media published unverifiable reports of violent acts in eastern Ukraine. The Russian media outlets accuse Kyiv of plotting an assault on rebel enclaves in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

“The EU sees no grounds for allegations coming from the non-governmental controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of a possible Ukrainian attack,” Borrell said. “We commend Ukraine’s posture of restraint in the face of continued provocations and efforts at destabilization.”

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told German broadcaster ARD: “Every indication indicates that Russia is planning a full-fledged attack against Ukraine.”

Stoltenberg has previously said NATO will not deploy any forces into Ukraine to defend it from any Russian aggression.

People rest at a tent camp at the Matveyev Kurgan border checkpoint on Russia-Ukraine border after evacuating from Donetsk, a territory controlled by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine, near the border with Ukraine in Russia, February 19, 2022. (AP Photo)

NATO members have sent forces to neighboring countries which are alliance members, and Stoltenberg has said NATO member countries will vigorously react to any Russian action in those territories, under its collective defense pact.

NATO is relocating staff from Ukraine’s capital Kyiv to Lviv, in the west of the country, and to the Belgian capital Brussels for their safety, an alliance official said Saturday. Brussels hosts NATO’s headquarters.

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and the alliance does not have any forces there, but since the late 1990s it has maintained two offices in Kyiv. Russia has repeatedly warned against Ukraine joining NATO, saying it views the move as a threat.

Several Western countries have already moved diplomats from Kyiv to Lviv, located near the border with Poland, in anticipation of Russian military action.

The US said Saturday that Russia likely has even more forces on Ukraine’s border than previously estimated.

Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to OSCE, said Russia has massed between 169,000 and 190,000 troops near Ukraine.

“They are uncoiling and are now poised to strike,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Saturday during a visit to Lithuania.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday at the annual Munich Security Conference that his country deserved more support.

Zelensky condemned “a policy of appeasement” toward Moscow.

“For eight years, Ukraine has been a shield,” he said. “For eight years, Ukraine has been holding back one of the greatest armies in the world.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a speech during the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on February 19, 2022. (AP/Michael Probst)

Zelensky also pleaded with Ukraine’s allies to start imposing sanctions on Russia right away, to try to deter an invasion. “What are you waiting for?” Zelensky said, cautioning that it would be too late for sanctions after “parts of our country will be occupied.”

“Just putting ourselves in coffins and waiting for foreign soldiers to come in is not something we are prepared to do,’’ Zelensky said. “We will protect our country,” he promised, “with or without [outside] support.”

Castigating western inaction, he said, “Ukraine has received security guarantees for abandoning the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal. We have no weapons.

“But we have a right – a right to demand a shift from a policy of appeasement to one ensuring security and peace,” he said.

He said Ukraine sought a “clear” and “feasible” timeframe to join NATO.

He said he was willing to meet Putin to find out “what the Russian president wants.”

A Ukrainian soldier looks at a hole from a shell fired by pro-Russian separatists in the village of Novoluhanske, Luhansk region, Ukraine, on February 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Oleksandr Ratushniak)

Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock sounded a different note and warned against jumping to conclusions.

“In crisis situations, the most inappropriate thing to do is to somehow guess or assume,” Baerbock told reporters, after being repeatedly pressed on whether Germany shared Biden’s assessment that Russia had decided to invade.

“We do not know yet if an attack has been decided on,” Baerbock said.

The Kremlin insists it has no plans to attack its neighbor, but Moscow has done little to reduce tensions, with state media accusing Kyiv of plotting an assault on rebel-held pro-Russia enclaves in eastern Ukraine. The claims are fiercely denied by Ukraine and dismissed by the West as part of Russian efforts to manufacture a pretext for war.

Russia held massive military exercises Saturday that included firing its latest hypersonic, cruise and nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The Kremlin said Putin was watching the drills together with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko from the situation room.

Putin has also stepped up his rhetoric, reiterating demands for written guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and for the alliance to roll back deployments in eastern Europe to positions from decades ago.

Earlier Saturday, Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russia separatist government in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, cited an “immediate threat of aggression” from Ukrainian forces.

Lines of communication between Moscow and the West remain open: the American and Russian defense chiefs spoke Friday. French President Emmanuel Macron scheduled a phone call with Putin on Sunday. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed to meet next week.

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