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People waiting to be evacuated to Russia amid crisis in Donetsk. AP

Russian troops on the border with Ukraine are 'poised to strike', says US defence secretary

Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold a telephone call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday.

LAST UPDATE | 19 Feb 2022

UKRAINE’S ARMY SAID that two of its soldiers died in attacks in on the frontline with Russian-backed separatists, the first fatalities in the conflict in more than a month.

“As a result of a shelling attack, two Ukrainian servicemen received fatal shrapnel wounds,” the military command for the separatist conflict said.

It also accused Moscow-backed rebels of sharply escalating attacks as western leaders gather in Germany for the Munich security conference.

Ukraine’s emergency service said two of its staff were wounded during a wave of attacks on Friday.

Speaking during a visit to Lithuania this morning, the United States Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin claimed that Russian troops on the border with Ukraine are ”uncoiling” and “poised to strike”.

But he said the conflict was “not inevitable”, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin “can choose a different path”.

Austin said he agreed with US President Joe Biden that Putin had “made the decision” to invade. 

This morning, the leaders of Ukraine’s two breakaway regions announced a general mobilisation, spurring fears of a further escalation.

The announcements came after observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE) reported a significant rise in attacks on the frontline in parts of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian rebels.

“I urge my fellow citizens who are in the reserves to come to military conscription offices. Today I signed a decree on general mobilisation,” Denis Pushilin, the leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a video statement.

The leader of the Lugansk separatist region, Leonid Pasechnik, meanwhile published a decree saying the measure in his region was signed to prepare for “repelling aggression”.

Western leaders have for weeks raised the alarm over a build-up of Moscow’s army around Ukraine with Washington warning that an imminent attack could take place.

Pushilin claimed his region’s forces had prevented attacks he said were planned by Ukraine security services, and that the Ukrainian army had continued attacks.

“Together, we will achieve for all of us the victory we desire and need. We will protect Donbas and all Russian people,” Pushilin added, using the term for eastern Ukraine.

Kyiv has repeatedly denied any plans to regain control of separatist-held areas using force or of the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014.

More than 14,000 people have been killed in fighting between Ukraine’s army and Moscow-supported separatists since fighting broke out in 2014.

Moscow formally denies being involved in the conflict and calls it Ukrainian internal affairs.

But monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE) have reported regular shipments of Russian weapons across the border throughout the eight-year war.

Speaking ahead of the Munich Security Conference today, US Vice President Kamala Harris said any Russian invasion in Ukraine will invite not only damaging economic sanctions but also a bolstering of NATO on Europe’s eastern flank.

“We will not stop with economic measures. We will further reinforce our NATO allies on the eastern flank” in response to an invasion, Harris said.

Meanwhile, the European Union said today it is coordinating aid deliveries to Ukraine, helping to fly in medical supplies and protective gear at Kiev’s request.

The aid, supplied by member states, “is to support Ukraine`s preparedness efforts for all possible scenarios”, according to a European Commission statement.

It included disposable medical masks, sterile gloves, electricity generators, antibiotics, disinfectants from Slovenia, Ireland, Romania and Austria.

This morning, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen accused Russia of making a “blatant attempt to rewrite the rules of the international order”.

In a speech lashing out at Moscow over its troop buildup on the Ukraine border, she charged Russia, like China, with seeking to “replace the existing international rules — they prefer the rule of the strongest to the rule of law — intimidation instead of self-determination.”

Telephone call

At the Munich Security Conference this afternoon, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described his country as Europe’s “shield” against Russia.

He said his country deserves more international support.

“For eight years, Ukraine has been a shield. For eight years, Ukraine has been holding back one of the greatest armies in the world,” he said, in reference to Ukraine’s conflict with Russian-backed separatists.

Last night, US President Joe Biden restated his belief that Russia will invade Ukraine within “days” or “weeks”.

“As of this moment, I’m convinced he’s made the decision. We have reason to believe that,” said the president.

The Kremlin insists it has no plans to invade.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold a telephone call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday as tensions spike in the crisis over Ukraine, the Kremlin said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the call was “on the president’s schedule” for Sunday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has not changed his plans to personally attend Saturday’s Munich Security Conference, his office said, despite US warnings of a Russian invasion.

Without referring to US President Joe Biden’s questioning of whether it would be wise to leave Kyiv, Zelensky’s office issued a statement insisting that the situation in Ukraine’s east “remains under full control”.

– © AFP 2022


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