Pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine begin civilian evacuations while Russian President Putin signs a decree to provide about $130 aid to each evacuee.
Separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions that form Ukraine's industrial heartland known as the Donbass have said they are evacuating civilians to Russia.
Friday's announcement appeared to be part of Moscow’s efforts to counter Western warnings of a Russian invasion and to paint Ukraine as the aggressor instead.
Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk rebel group, said women, children and the elderly would go first, and that Russia has prepared facilities for them. Pushilin alleged in a video statement that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy 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 Associated Press confirmed.
US authorities have alleged that Kremlin plans included prerecorded videos as part of a disinformation campaign.
Rebels began moving children from an orphanage in Donetsk, and other residents boarded buses for Russia. Long lines formed at gas stations as more people prepared to leave on their own.
Putin ordered his emergencies minister to fly to the Rostov region bordering Ukraine to help organize the exodus and ordered the government to offer a payment of 10,000 rubles (about $130) to each evacuee, equivalent to about half of an average monthly salary in the war-ravaged Donbas.
Ukraine denied planning any offensive, with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba saying that “Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas.”
“We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only,” he tweeted.
Around the volatile line of contact, a UNCHR convoy came under rebel shelling in the Luhansk region, Ukraine’s military chief said. No casualties were reported. Rebels denied involvement and accused Ukraine of staging a provocation.
Separatist authorities reported more shelling by Ukrainian forces along the line. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the situation is “potentially very dangerous.” A surge of shelling Thursday tore through the walls of a kindergarten, injuring two, and basic communications were disrupted. Both sides accused each other of opening fire.
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Western governments fear Moscow may use the pretext of increased violence in Ukraine-Russia border to justify an invasion as Russian President Putin denies he's planning one pic.twitter.com/CIfFewlgfw— TRT World Now (@TRTWorldNow) February 18, 2022
Urging Russia to influence for deescalation
France and Germany's foreign ministers on Friday urged Russia to use its influence on separatists in eastern Ukraine to "encourage restraint and contribute to de-escalation."
Noting calls from rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk to evacuate civilians over a possible conflict, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and her French counterpart Jean-Yves le Drian said they "are concerned that staged incidents could be misused as a pretext for possible military escalation."
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The military drills and the situation in Ukraine are definitely going to be the focus of Lukashenko and Putin's talks, journalist Dasha Chernyshovah says pic.twitter.com/ILgSrfXsgV— TRT World Now (@TRTWorldNow) February 18, 2022
US and European officials have been on high alert for any Russian attempts at a so-called false-flag operation. A Western official familiar with intelligence findings said Ukrainian government officials shared intelligence that suggested the Russians might try to shell the areas in the Luhansk region controlled by separatists, as part of an effort to create a false reason to take military action. The official was not authorized to comment publicly.
While Russia announced this week it is pulling back forces from vast military exercises that had sparked fears of an invasion, US officials have said they see no sign of a pullback — and instead saw more troops moving toward the border with Ukraine.
Also Friday, the US government released new estimates of how many military personnel Russia has in and around Ukraine. It said there are between 169,000 and 190,000 personnel, up from about 100,000 on January 30, according to Michael Carpenter, the permanent US representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the threat to global security is “more complex and probably higher” than during the Cold War. He told the Munich conference that a small mistake or miscommunication between major powers could have catastrophic consequences.
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US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin meets Polish counterpart Mariusz Blaszczak in Warsaw to discuss Ukraine-Russia tensions pic.twitter.com/9fLtgBCuUt— TRT World Now (@TRTWorldNow) February 18, 2022
The White House formally accused Russia of being responsible for recent cyberattacks targeting Ukraine’s defence ministry and major banks. The announcement was the most pointed attribution of responsibility for the cyber intrusions.
Alongside the US, Britain also on Friday said that Russia's GRU, a military intelligence agency, was almost certainly involved in cyber attacks on Ukrainian banks this week.
"The decision to publicly attribute this incident underlines the fact that the UK and its allies will not tolerate malicious cyber activity," the British foreign ministry said.
The Kremlin sent a reminder to the world of its nuclear might, announcing drills of its nuclear forces for the weekend. Putin will monitor the sweeping exercise Saturday that will involve multiple practice missile launches.
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