Putin begins nuclear exercise and US says Russian army ‘uncoils’ to attack Ukraine
Separatists call for military mobilization in eastern Ukraine; Kremlin says no attack plan
President Vladimir Putin on Saturday launched an exercise by Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Missile Forces and Washington said Russian troops were advancing near Ukraine’s border and were “ready to attack”. With Western nations fearing what could be one of the worst conflicts since the Cold War, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Russian forces were beginning to grow “uncoiled and close” along the border with their former Soviet neighbor. “We hope that he (Putin) will retreat from the brink of conflict,” Mr Austin told a news conference in Lithuania, adding that an invasion of Ukraine was not inevitable. Russia has ordered military build-up, demanding NATO to prevent Ukraine from ever joining the coalition, but says Western predictions of plans to invade Ukraine are false and dangerous. It says it is pulling back now. Washington and allies say construction is on the rise. Russian-backed separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine announced a full military mobilization after Ukrainian forces ordered the evacuation of women and children from Russia, citing the threat of an imminent attack. Kiev denied the allegation. It and Western leaders say mobilization, evacuations and increased shelling across the ceasefire line this week are part of Russian plans to make excuses for an invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s FSB security service said two shells landed in Russian territory near the border, Russia’s Tass news agency reported. One hit a building in the Rostov area, but there were no casualties, it said. Ukraine’s foreign minister denied any Ukrainian shelling affecting Russian territory and called for an independent international investigation into the alleged incidents. Ukraine’s military accused Russia of photographing the shells to suggest they were Ukrainian, and said the mercenaries had arrived in cooperation with Russia’s special services for provocation in separatist-held eastern Ukraine. “The purpose of these provocations, of course, would be to accuse Ukraine of further escalation,” it said. An eyewitness said several explosions were heard on Saturday north of the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, as more people boarded buses. The origins of the explosions were not immediately clear. Ukraine said one of its soldiers had been killed.