The exercise was originally scheduled to end on Sunday and a significant contingent of Russian troops was brought to Belarus. The presence of Russian troops has raised concerns that they could be used to encroach on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, a city of about 3 million people in less than a three-hour drive.
Western leaders have warned that Russia is ready to attack its neighbor, which is surrounded on three sides by about 150,000 Russian soldiers, warplanes and equipment. Russia held nuclear exercises on Saturday, as well as regular exercises in Belarus, as well as ongoing naval exercises off the Black Sea coast.
The United States and many European countries have argued for months that Russia is trying to create grounds for an invasion. They threatened mass immediate sanctions if that happened.
“We are talking about the potential of war in Europe,” US Vice President Kamala Harris told a security conference in Munich, Germany, on Sunday. “More than 70 years have passed, and in those 70 years … there has been peace and security.”
WATCH: Biden “convinced” Putin decided to invade Ukraine amid escalating crisis with Russia
High-ranking European Union spokesman Charles Michel said: “The big question remains: does the Kremlin want dialogue?”
“We cannot offer an olive branch forever as long as Russia conducts missile tests and continues to accumulate troops,” said Michelle, president of the European Council.
Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky on Saturday called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to choose a place where the leaders of the two countries can meet to try to resolve the crisis, and on Sunday called for a ceasefire on Twitter. Russia has rejected plans to invade, but the Kremlin has not responded to his offer until Sunday, and it is Belarus, not Russia, that has announced an extension of the exercise.
NATO estimates that there are 30,000 Russian troops in Belarus.
In Kiev on Sunday, life went on, seemingly as usual, armor and church services in full swing. Ekaterina Spanchak, who fled the separatist-occupied Luhansk region several years ago, said she was praying for peace.
“We are people, we all love life, and we are all united by our love for life. We must appreciate it every day. So I think everything will be fine,” said Spanchak at an outing service at St. Michael’s Monastery.
But in Luhansk, an area of eastern Ukraine where her parents still live, and neighboring Donetsk, separatist leaders ordered full military mobilization and sent more civilians to Russia, which issued about 700,000 passports to rebel-held areas. The allegation that Russian citizens are threatened with extinction can be used as an excuse for hostilities.
Officials in the separatist territories said that Ukrainian forces had made several artillery attacks in the past day and that two civilians had been killed during a failed attack on a village near the Russian border. The Ukrainian military said two soldiers were killed in separatist shelling on Saturday.
The Ukrainian leader criticized the United States and other Western countries for holding back new sanctions on Russia. In comments before the conference, Zelensky also questioned the West’s refusal to allow Ukraine to join NATO immediately. Putin demanded that NATO renounce Ukraine as a member.
In new signs of fear of imminent war, Germany and Austria ordered their citizens to leave Ukraine, and NATO’s liaison office in Kyiv moved personnel to Brussels and Lviv in western Ukraine.
U.S. President Joe Biden said Friday night that based on the latest U.S. intelligence, he is now “convinced” that Putin has decided to invade Ukraine in the coming days and attack the capital.
A U.S. military official said an estimated 40 percent to 50 percent of the ground forces surrounding Ukraine had moved to the attack position closer to the border. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. internal assessments, said the changes had been going on for about a week and did not necessarily mean Putin was seeking an invasion.
Lines of communication between Moscow and the West remain open: French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Putin on Sunday almost two hours before a 30-minute call with the Ukrainian president. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have agreed to meet next week.
Blinken said Sunday that the United States is still working hard to dissuade Putin from invading Ukraine, but said recent developments, including the expansion of troops in Belarus and increased shelling along the line of contact, have shown Putin is good. prepares for the grounds and foundation for the invasion in accordance with the findings of American intelligence and previous seizures of Russian territory. “He executes the script almost to the letter,” Blinken told CNN.
“Until the last minute, he still has the opportunity to retreat,” Blinken told NBC Meet the Press. He said that his offer to meet with Lavrov in Europe in the coming days was due to the fact that Russia does not return to Ukraine in advance.
Macron’s office said both Ukrainian and Russian leaders had agreed to work on a diplomatic solution “in the coming days and weeks.”
Immediate concerns have focused on eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russian insurgents since 2014 in a conflict that has killed about 14,000 people.
Ukraine and separatist leaders have exchanged accusations of escalation. Russia said on Saturday that at least two shells fired from a government-controlled part of eastern Ukraine had crossed the border, but Ukraine’s foreign minister dismissed the statement as a “fake statement”.
“If tensions escalate as much as possible, as they do now, for example, on the line of contact, then any spark, any unplanned incident or any minor planned provocation can lead to irreparable consequences,” said Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov. an interview aired on Russian state television on Sunday.
At the forefront, the Ukrainian military said it had been ordered not to respond. Zakhar Leshushun, looking into the distance through a periscope, watched the news all day from the trench where he is near the city of Golden.
“We are not responding to their fire now because …” the soldier said before being interrupted by the sound of a shell. “Oh! They’re shooting at us now, aiming at the command post.”
For years, sporadic violence has erupted along the line separating Ukrainian forces from Russian-backed separatists, but the surge in recent days is an order of magnitude higher than anything recently recorded by international observers: nearly 1,500 explosions in 24 hours.
Denis Pushilin, head of the pro-Russian separatist government in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, cited an “imminent threat of aggression” by Ukrainian forces in a statement calling for weapons. Ukrainian officials have categorically denied plans to seize rebel-held territory by force.
A similar statement was made by his colleague in Luhansk region. On Friday, the rebels began evacuating civilians to Russia with an announcement that appears to be part of their and Moscow’s efforts to label Ukraine an aggressor.
Metadata from two videos released by separatists announcing the evacuation of civilians to Russia shows that the files were created two days ago, the AP confirmed. U.S. officials say the Kremlin’s attempts to come up with a basis for the invasion may include staging pre-recorded videos.
Heinz reported from Moscow. Mstislav Chernov in Golden (Ukraine), Geir Mulson in Berlin, Aamer Madhani in Munich, Ellen Nikmaer, Robert Burns and Darlene Superville in Washington, Ludas Dapkus in Vilnius (Lithuania) and Yuras Karmanov in Kyiv contributed to this story.
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