Separatists in eastern Ukraine order mass evacuation as Ukraine warns of Russian provocation

Kyiv and Lviv, Ukraine CNN  — 

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine’s breakaway regions ordered the evacuation of civilians to Russia Friday, accusing Ukraine of planning a large military offensive against the two self-declared republics.

The restive eastern part of the country has witnessed the worst shelling in years over the last two days. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Friday that shelling of Ukrainian territory from areas controlled by separatists had risen dramatically in the past day.

Each side accuses the other of heavy shelling of civilian areas. Ukrainian authorities say there were 60 breaches of the ceasefire Thursday, many of them by heavy weapons.

The Ukrainian government denies that it is planning any offensive in the east, accusing the separatists of launching a “disinformation campaign.”

Authorities in the breakaway states of Donetsk and Luhansk said they were organizing the evacuations. Leonid Pasechnik, the most senior official in the pro-Russian breakaway Luhansk People’s Republic, urged men to take up arms.

“The Russian Federation is ready to provide organized reception and accommodation on its territory of residents of the Luhansk People’s Republic,” said Pasechnik. “Once again, I appeal to all men who are able to hold weapons in their hands, to defend their land.”

A Ukrainian serviceman looks through a spyglass on the front line with Russia-backed separatists, near Novolugansk, in the Donetsk region, on February 17, 2022.

Ukrainians accuse separatists of staging attack in breakaway city

On Friday, a vehicle explosion in Donetsk was dismissed by Ukrainian and US officials as a staged attack designed to stoke tensions in eastern Ukraine. Video showed a fire in a parking lot and a badly damaged military vehicle, near the headquarters of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.

Images and video showed emergency services at the scene and a badly damaged vehicle identified by CNN as a Russian-made jeep. There’s no way to verify what caused the damage to the vehicle or the fire.

“We think that this is a staging and a provocation,” Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister, told CNN on WhatsApp.

A US State Department spokesman described it as a “false flag operation” and said incidents like the vehicle explosion and calls from separatist leaders to evacuate because of alleged Ukrainian aggression represented “further attempts to obscure through lies and disinformation that Russia is the aggressor in this conflict.”

US President Joe Biden has said that there has been an uptick in Russian disinformation that could be used as a pretext for an invasion into Ukraine. Speaking at the White House on Friday, Biden said that he was “convinced” Putin has made the decision to invade Ukraine, but added that “diplomacy is always a possibility.”

Biden said reports pushed to the Russian public that Ukraine is planning to launch an attack in separatist-controlled Donbas lacked evidence. He said those claims defied logic.

“All of these are consistent with the playbook the Russians have used before,” Biden said.

He added: “This is also in line with the pretext scenario that the United States and our allies and partners have been warning about for weeks.

Both the Ukrainian government and western officials have warned of the possibility of provocative actions by Russia and the separatist leadership to provide a pretext for a Russian offensive into Ukraine.

“We are in the most dangerous phase,” a Western official told reporters Friday. “They could move at any time. Russia could act within days. Everything we are seeing makes us more concerned about that.”

The official said there are 110 Russian battalion tactical groups – a fighting formation that normally comprises about 1,000 troops – around Ukraine. Russia also has “air power ready to go,” the official added.

According to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, there were multiple shelling incidents on Thursday morning across the frontline in the Donbas region. In addition, the Ukrainian military said it had documented a total of 47 violations of a cease-fire agreement in more than 25 locations. Ukraine?s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, blamed Russia for severely violating the cease-fire agreement. (Photo by Jakub Podkowiak/PRESSCOV/Sipa USA)

Both the Ukrainian government and western officials have warned of the possibility of provocative actions by Russia and the separatist leadership to provide a pretext for a Russian offensive into Ukraine.

The Donbas region has seen fighting between Ukrainian forces and separatist fighters since 2014. The Ukrainian government in Kyiv asserts the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic are in effect Russian-occupied. The self-declared republics are not recognized by any government, including Russia. The Ukrainian government refuses to talk directly with either separatist republic.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has distributed around 600,000 Russian passports to inhabitants of breakaway regions in recent years, a move that observers have argued could set the stage for a Russian intervention in Ukraine.

More than 14,000 people have died in the conflict in Donbas since 2014. Ukraine says 1.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes, with most staying in the areas of Donbas that remain under Ukrainian control and about 200,000 resettling in the wider Kyiv region.

A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be “catastrophic,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said Friday during his opening remarks at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, calling for diplomatic efforts to continue.

“I am deeply concerned about heightened tensions and increased speculation about a military conflict in Europe. I still think it will not happen but, if it did, it would be catastrophic,” Guterres said.

US Vice President Kamala Harris from the Munich conference warned that “aggressive action” by Russia would be met with “severe consequences” of economic sanctions.

Biden administration officials have privately urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky not to leave Ukraine and visit Munich on Saturday given concerns about a possible incursion, according to three US officials and one senior Ukrainian official.

Some US officials are concerned that if he leaves the country that could open the door for Russia to make false claims that he has fled. While officials haven’t explicitly asked Zelensky not to make the trip – and have been careful to make clear it’s up to him – those concerns have been communicated, one of the officials said.