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Russia is planning ‘biggest war in Europe since 1945,’ says UK’s Johnson

British PM warns of potential ‘sheer cost in human life’; Zelensky proposes meeting with Russia leader; Putin, Macron to speak; Germany, Austria tell citizens to leave Ukraine

A Ukrainian serviceman points to the direction of the incoming shelling next to a building which was hit by a large caliber mortar shell in the frontline village of Krymske, Luhansk region, in eastern Ukraine, Feb. 19, 2022 (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A Ukrainian serviceman points to the direction of the incoming shelling next to a building which was hit by a large caliber mortar shell in the frontline village of Krymske, Luhansk region, in eastern Ukraine, Feb. 19, 2022 (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday that 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 told the BBC.

“People need to understand the sheer cost in human life that could entail,” he said.

Johnson noted that a war would not only lead to the deaths of Ukrainians, but also “young Russians.”

Johnson said the UK was coordinating its sanctions closely with the EU.

“If Russia invades its neighbor, we will sanction Russian individuals and companies of strategic importance to the Russian state and we will make it impossible for them to raise finance on the London capital markets,” he said in Munich, where he was attending a security conference.

Johnson added that authorities would look for “the ultimate beneficiaries” of Russian-owned companies and entities. London is a key financial market for Moscow and plays a crucial role in the Russian economy.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the Munich Security Conference in Munich, southern Germany, on February 19, 2022. (Matt Dunham / POOL / AFP)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, facing a sharp spike in violence in and around territory held by Russia-backed rebels and increasingly dire warnings that Russia plans to invade, on Saturday called for Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet him and seek a resolution to the crisis.

“I don’t know what the president of the Russian Federation wants, so I am proposing a meeting,” Zelensky said at the Munich Security Conference, where he also met with US Vice President Kamala Harris. Zelensky said Russia could pick the location for the talks.

“Ukraine will continue to follow only the diplomatic path for the sake of a peaceful settlement.”

There was no immediate response from the Kremlin, however French President Emmanuel Macron will call Putin on Sunday to try to avert what Western powers predict will be an imminent invasion of Ukraine.

Zelensky spoke hours after separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine ordered a full military mobilization on Saturday, while Western leaders made increasingly dire warnings that a Russian invasion of its neighbor appeared imminent.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, center, inspects weapons during a visit to Ukrainian coast guards in Mariupol, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

In new signs of fears that a war could start within days, Germany and Austria told their citizens to leave Ukraine. German air carrier Lufthansa canceled flights to the capital, Kyiv, and to Odessa, a Black Sea port that could be a key target in an invasion.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Saturday issued a fresh call for Israelis in Ukraine to immediately leave the country. The ministry made the appeal after holding a situational assessment and following talks that director-general Alon Ushpiz held with unspecified figures at the Munich Security Conference.

NATO’s liaison office in Kyiv said it was relocating staff to Brussels and to the western Ukraine city of Lviv.

Meanwhile, top Ukrainian military officials came under a shelling attack during a tour of the front of the nearly eight-year separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. The officials fled to a bomb shelter before hustling from the area.

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

Violence in eastern Ukraine has spiked in recent days as Ukraine and the two regions held by the rebels each accused the other of escalation. Russia on Saturday said at least two shells fired from a government-held part of eastern Ukraine landed across the border, but Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba dismissed that claim as “a fake statement.”

Sporadic violence has broken out for years along the line separating Ukrainian forces from the Russia-backed rebels, but the recent shelling and bombing spike could set off a full-scale war.

The United States and many European countries have alleged for months that Russia, which has moved about 150,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, is trying to create pretexts to invade.

A woman holds a placard as she takes part in a rally on February 19, 2022, in the center of the western Ukraine city of Lviv (Yuriy DYACHYSHYN / AFP)

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

Harris opened her meeting with Zelensky by saying the world was at “a decisive moment in history.”

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 in his announcement. Ukrainian officials vehemently denied having plans to take rebel-controlled areas by force.

“I appeal to all the men in the republic who can hold weapons to defend their families, their children, wives, mothers,” Pushilin said. ”Together we will achieve the coveted victory that we all need.”

A similar statement followed from his counterpart in the Luhansk region. On Friday, the rebels began evacuating civilians to Russia with an announcement that appeared to be part of their and Moscow’s efforts to paint Ukraine as the aggressor.

People stand by a bus in the Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, early Feb. 19, 2022, after evacuating from Donetsk, a territory controlled by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine (AP Photo)

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the evacuation orders could be a tactic to provide the spark for a broader attack.

“To say it very clearly, Ukraine did not give any grounds for the evacuation that was ordered yesterday,” she said. “Those are the facts on the ground. We must not allow supposed reasons for war to be constructed out of hot air.”

US President Joe Biden said late Friday that based on the latest American intelligence, he was now “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine and assault the capital.

“As of this moment, I’m convinced he’s made the decision,” Biden said. “We have reason to believe that.” He reiterated that the assault could occur in the “coming days.”

Biden is convening a rare Sunday National Security Council meeting over the crisis.

Meanwhile, Russia conducted massive nuclear drills on Saturday. The Kremlin said Putin, who pledged to protect Russia’s national interests against what it sees as encroaching Western threats, was watching the drills together with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko from the situation room.

In this photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Feb. 19, 2022, a Russian military technician checks a MiG-31K fighter of the Russian air force carrying a Kinzhal hypersonic cruise missile parked at an air field during a military drills (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Notably, the planned exercise involves the Crimea-based Black Sea Fleet. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula after seizing it from Ukraine in 2014.

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.

Underscoring the West’s concerns of an imminent invasion, a US defense official said an estimated 40% to 50% of the ground forces deployed in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border have moved into attack positions closer to the border.

Immediate worries focused on eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting the pro-Russia rebels since 2014 in a conflict that has killed some 14,000 people. Violations of a 2015 ceasefire agreement, including shelling and shooting along the line of contact, have been common.

A car bomb exploded in the center of the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk on Friday. Adding to the tensions, two explosions shook the rebel-controlled city of Luhansk early Saturday. No injuries were reported in the incidents.

Ukraine’s military said two of its soldiers died in firing from the rebel side on Saturday.

By Saturday morning, the 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.

An elderly woman holds her Russian, left, and Donetsk People’s Republic passports as she waits to be evacuated to Russia, in Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine, Feb. 19, 2022 (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)

Pushilin, the head of the Donetsk rebel government, alleged in a video statement that Ukraine was going to order an imminent offensive in the area.

Metadata from two videos posted by the separatists announcing the evacuation show that the files were created two days ago, the AP confirmed. US authorities have alleged that the Kremlin’s effort to come up with an invasion pretext could include staged, prerecorded videos.

Authorities in Russia’s Rostov region, which borders eastern Ukraine, declared a state of emergency because of the influx of evacuees. Media reports on Saturday described chaos at some of the camps assigned to accommodate the people from eastern Ukraine. The reports said there were long lines of buses and hundreds of people waiting in the cold for hours on end to be housed without access to food or bathroom facilities.

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