Politics

‘Huge explosion’ reported in Luhansk ‘possibly linked to gas pipeline’ 


Two powerful explosions have been heard in eastern Ukraine just hours after a car bomb saw the mass evacuation of thousands from the region amid fears of a looming Russian attack.

The first explosion, which has been ‘linked to a gas pipeline’, was heard in the pro-Russian separatist capital Donetsk in eastern Ukraine while the second was heard in rebel-held Luhansk, one of the main cities in Ukraine’s breakaway region of People’s Republic of Luhansk, according to reports. 

The latests reports comes just hours after an explosion, which was claimed to be a car bomb, rocked Donetsk in what appeared to be the start of Putin’s long-awaited false flag operation. 

Russian media claim the first explosion was a car bomb which was intended to assassinate a top Russian separatist official – who was unhurt –  and it came hours after Putin’s allies in the breakaway regions announced they would evacuate 700,000 civilians over fears of an attack by Kiev. 

The latest explosion come  as US and Western intelligence agencies continue to warn of a Russian ‘false flag’ operation that could involve a staged attack on Putin’s separatist allies to provide a pretest for the Kremlin to send its forces massed on the border into Ukraine. 

Tonight Western allies were still determined to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine and were worried reports of explosions in eastern Ukraine looked similar to pretexts of this kind used by Russia before, a French presidential official said on Friday.   

‘Should Russian President Vladimir Putin decide to invade Ukraine, France and allies will act to give reassurances to eastern European allies. We would tip into another geopolitical reality in Europe,’ the official told reporters.   

Earlier today the car bomb exploded near the headquarters of the pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic, destroying a Soviet-era UAZ jeep that belonged to Denis Sinenkov, head of regional security. He was not reported to be injured.

Russian state media were the first to report on the explosion and picture the bomb site, with a notorious Russian ‘journalist’ – thought to be a state propagandist – among the first to arrive on the scene.

If Western warnings of a false flag prove correct, it would mean Putin’s forces blew up the car themselves in order to claim that Ukraine’s eastern region – and ethnic Russians living it in – are under threat of attack. That threat would then be used to justify Russian troops and tanks rolling across the border on a ‘protection’ mission.

Just an hour before the blast, the pro-Russian heads of the People’s Republic of Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic ordered women, children and the elderly to evacuate immediately ahead of what they claimed would be a Ukrainian invasion. Kiev categorically denied any plans to attack.   

Today, a US State Department spokesperson said that reported evacuations in eastern Ukraine and a car bombing in the city of Donetsk ‘are further attempts to obscure through lies and disinformation that Russia is the aggressor in this conflict.’

They went on to say it was ‘cynical and cruel to use human beings as pawns to distract the world from the fact that Russia is building up its forces in preparation for an attack’. 

It came as the UK Foreign Office said the British Embassy office in Kiev was temporarily relocating to Lviv, western Ukraine, amid the increased threat of military action.

President Vladimir Putin on Friday ordered the Russian government to house and feed people leaving two self-proclaimed east Ukrainian breakaway republics once they arrived in southern Russia.

He also ordered every person who arrived from Donbass to be given a payment of 10,000 roubles ($129). 

Ukraine on Friday called on the international community to condemn what it said were provocations by Russia in separatist-held eastern Ukrainian areas, saying that Moscow would only escalate the situation further if it did not.

‘…we are watching the Russian Federation launch a campaign to spread mass disinformation, increase shelling of Ukrainian positions and civilian infrastructure with weapons banned by the Minsk agreements, and escalate the security situation,’ the foreign ministry’s spokesman said in a statement.

‘Lack of a proper reaction or a neutral position will only fuel the escalation of the situation by Russia.’

There are now thought to be up to 190,000 Russian soldiers backed by tanks, artillery, helicopters, fighter jets and missile batteries within reaching distance of Ukraine as Putin prepares to personally oversee nuclear missile drills that will take place tomorrow. 

Elsewhere today…

  • US President Joe Biden will hold talks with Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania the EU and NATO allies on Friday to discuss the crisis, European sources said
  • Lloyd Austin, US defence secretary, arrived in Poland where he announced the sale of Abrams tanks to Warsaw and again accused Russia of lying about withdrawing its forces from Ukraine’s borders 
  • Shelling continued along the frontlines between Ukrainian forces and Moscow-backed rebels in the country’s east, following the heaviest day of attacks in the last four years on Thursday
  • Pro-Moscow rebels claimed to have thwarted a sabotage attack on chlorine gas tanks by two ‘Polish-speaking’ nationals, just a day after the US warned they may stage a ‘false flag’ chemical attack 
  • Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, accused international groups monitoring the clashes of trying to ‘conceal’ what is going on and said rebel forces are being shot at with banned weapons
The burning wreckage of a car is seen in the car park of the Donetsk separatist government, after what pro-Russian media claimed was an assassination attempt against the head of regional security

The burning wreckage of a car is seen in the car park of the Donetsk separatist government, after what pro-Russian media claimed was an assassination attempt against the head of regional security

The blast, which was first reported by Russian state media, is thought to be the start of Putin's long-predicted false flag operation used to justify an invasion of the country

The blast, which was first reported by Russian state media, is thought to be the start of Putin’s long-predicted false flag operation used to justify an invasion of the country

The destroyed UAZ military jeep belonged to Denis Sinenkov, head of regional security in Donetsk, in what Russian state media suggested was an assassination attempt

 The destroyed UAZ military jeep belonged to Denis Sinenkov, head of regional security in Donetsk, in what Russian state media suggested was an assassination attempt

Ukraine called on world leaders to condemn 'provocations' by Russia in the country's east, including the explosion, and warned of further escalation if they did  not

Ukraine called on world leaders to condemn ‘provocations’ by Russia in the country’s east, including the explosion, and warned of further escalation if they did  not

An hour before the bomb went off, separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk had ordered an evacuation of civilians because of what they said was the threat of Ukrainian invasion (pictured, children are evacuated from an orphanage)

An hour before the bomb went off, separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk had ordered an evacuation of civilians because of what they said was the threat of Ukrainian invasion (pictured, children are evacuated from an orphanage)

Children are pictured after being loaded on to a bus for evacuation out of the city of Donetsk, in separatist-occupied eastern Ukraine, after leaders spread rumours that Kiev's troops were about to attack

Children are pictured after being loaded on to a bus for evacuation out of the city of Donetsk, in separatist-occupied eastern Ukraine, after leaders spread rumours that Kiev’s troops were about to attack

Buses arrive in the city of Donetsk, rebel-occupied Ukraine, after pro-Moscow leaders announce that women, children and the elderly would be evacuated starting today ahead of what they said would be an attack by Kiev

Buses arrive in the city of Donetsk, rebel-occupied Ukraine, after pro-Moscow leaders announce that women, children and the elderly would be evacuated starting today ahead of what they said would be an attack by Kiev

The streets of Donetsk are deserted as an air raid siren sounds, raising fears that Putin is about to march Russian forces across the border and spark a bloody war in Europe

The streets of Donetsk are deserted as an air raid siren sounds, raising fears that Putin is about to march Russian forces across the border and spark a bloody war in Europe

Buses are pictured arriving in the city of Donetsk to carry away civilians as part of an evacuation ordered by pro-Moscow rebel forces which control the region

Buses are pictured arriving in the city of Donetsk to carry away civilians as part of an evacuation ordered by pro-Moscow rebel forces which control the region

Queue for fuel in Donetsk

Queue for fuel in Donetsk

Cars are pictured queuing for fuel in Donetsk amid fears that Russia could soon march troops across the border as part of a wider invasion of Ukraine

People are pictured queuing for an ATM in Donetsk amid fears that Putin could be about to spark a bloody war in Europe

People are pictured queuing for an ATM in Donetsk amid fears that Putin could be about to spark a bloody war in Europe

Denis Pushilin

Leonid Pasechniky

Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-declared People’s Republic of Donetsk (left), and Leonid Pasechniky, leader of neighbouring Luhansk, issued videos within minutes of each-other this evening ordering civilians in rebel-held areas to evacuate

Shortly after the evacuation orders were given, Russian TV broadcast what it said were 'leaked' Ukrainian battle plans in what appeared to be another disinformation attempt

Shortly after the evacuation orders were given, Russian TV broadcast what it said were ‘leaked’ Ukrainian battle plans in what appeared to be another disinformation attempt

Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko meet at the Kremlin today, as Russia announced major missile drills to take place tomorrow which will be personally overseen by the two men

The report said Putin has massed troops on Ukraine’s northern border in a way that ‘directly threatens Kiev, the capital’ and showed a series of possible routes Russian soldiers could take in an invasion that could see them take much of the east of the country

A map showing where Putin's forces have assembled on Ukraine's borders, the military options Putin might be considering, and key targets he would likely go after in the event he chooses to invade - something the US continues to war could be just weeks away from happening

A map showing where Putin’s forces have assembled on Ukraine’s borders, the military options Putin might be considering, and key targets he would likely go after in the event he chooses to invade – something the US continues to war could be just weeks away from happening

From pretext to ground troops: The four steps in a Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to Antony Blinken at the UN

Blinken said he was outlining Russia's plans during a meeting of the UN Security Council 'not to start a war but to prevent one'

Blinken said he was outlining Russia’s plans during a meeting of the UN Security Council ‘not to start a war but to prevent one’

Secretary of State Antony Blinken used a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to outline how the US believes a Russian invasion of Ukraine would unfold

1) Manufactured pretext – Russia would accuse Ukraine of a violent outrage such as a fabricated terrorist bombing inside Russia, a faked mass grave, a drone strike against civilians or a fake – or even a real – chemical weapons attack.

2) Emergency meetings in Moscow – Blinken said the highest levels of government may ‘theatrically’ convene emergency meetings to address the so-called crisis, before issuing a proclamation that they must defend Russians in Ukraine.

3) Attack – the next stage will come with Russian missiles and bombs dropping on Ukraine, jammed communications, and cyberattacks designed to shut down ‘key Ukrainian institutions.’

4) Ground invasion – Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans. Blinken said that would include Ukraine’s capital Kiev.

Blinken offered another chilling line.

‘Conventional attacks are not all that Russia plans to inflict upon the people of Ukraine,’ he said.

‘We have information that indicates Russia will target specific groups of Ukrainians.’

The US has faced repeated questions about the validity of its intelligence. And those seated around the table from Blinken will remember the false claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction presented there almost 20 years ago. 

‘Let me be clear, I am here today not to start a war but to prevent one,’ said Blinken.

‘Information presented here is validated by what we’ve seen unfolding in plain sight before our eyes for months.’

Moscow says the drills will involve the live-fire of ballistic and cruise missiles as part of a wide-reaching ‘readiness’ check of the country’s nuclear and non-nuclear forces. It is feared the exercise, which Moscow insists has been planned for a while, will provide cover for an invasion – with a missile barrage likely to be the Kremlin’s first move. 

Just an hour before the blast today, the pro-Russian heads of the People’s Republic of Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic Denis Pushilin ordered women, children and the elderly to evacuate immediately.

However it now appears the video announcing the evacuation was allegedly created two days ago according to clip’s metadata, BNO News reports.

Earlier in the day, rebel forces claimed to have thwarted a ‘sabotage’ attack earlier in the day by Ukrainian forces, including Polish nationals, on chlorine tanks. The US had warned just the day before that rebels might stage a faked chemical weapons attack.  

Shunning the West, Putin instead spent Friday meeting with Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk – who announced he will help oversee the drills on Saturday.

Lukashenko, who for many years resisted welcoming Russian troops to his country, has now allowed thousands in to stage joint drills at military bases and has even floated the idea of changing the country’s constitution to allow nuclear weapons to be stationed there.  

As diplomats gathered, Russia continue to push claims of ‘genocide’ in Ukraine’s Donbass region that the West warns will likely be used as a pre-text to attack. Last night, at the UN, Russia presented papers alleging 9,000 civilians including 126 children have been killed by Ukrainian forces. The claims have not been verified.

Meanwhile Britain’s Ministry of Defence outlined how it believes a Russian invasion will play out, noting that over half of Moscow’s forces near Ukraine have been moved to within 30 miles of the border. Ukraine warned today that the total number of troops now stands at 149,000, while the US said it could be up to 190,000.        

Putin has massed troops on Ukraine’s northern border in a way that ‘directly threatens Kiev, the capital’, said the MoD report, which showed a series of possible routes Russian soldiers could take in an invasion that could see them take much of the east of the country.

It warned there would be ‘considerable’ civilian casualties in the event of war and that Putin ‘would be willing’ to sustain the losses ‘to get what he wants’.

Today, a US State Department spokesperson said reported evacuations in eastern Ukraine and a car bombing were ‘further attempts to obscure through lies and disinformation that Russia is the aggressor in this conflict.’

The spokesperson said: ‘This type of false flag operation is exactly what Secretary [of State] Blinken highlighted in his remarks to the U.N. Security Council. 

‘It is also cynical and cruel to use human beings as pawns to distract the world from the fact that Russia is building up its forces in preparation for an attack. Russia is the sole instigator of these tensions and is threatening the people of Ukraine. It has put its troops on Ukraine’s borders and routinely abuses and violates the rights of the people of Donbass and Crimea.’ 

President Joe Biden will deliver public remarks on Friday to give an update on U.S. diplomatic efforts to prevent what it calls an increasingly likely Russian invasion of Ukraine amid shelling and an evacuation in eastern Ukraine.

Biden will speak at 4 p.m. (2100 GMT) following a call with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Britain, the European Union and NATO on Friday, the White House said.

The president will provide ‘an update on our continued efforts to pursue deterrence and diplomacy, and Russia’s buildup of military troops on the border of Ukraine,’ the White House said.

A source familiar with the situation said Biden will provide brief comments in the White House’s Roosevelt Room on the situation, not an address to the nation.

His administration has said that a diplomatic solution remains possible if Russia chooses but that Washington and its European allies are prepared to enact harsh punishments if Moscow opts to invade. Biden on Thursday said a Russian invasion could come in the next few days.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will be among the dignitaries attending the three-day event, known as ‘Davos for defence’, which kicks off on Friday at the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich.

No Russian delegation will attend the conference, the Kremlin said last week – the first no-show in years, underscoring how much East-West relations have deteriorated.

Even at the height of the Ukrainian revolution preceding Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said the forum had increasingly become biased towards the West, ‘losing its inclusivity, objectivity’.

Daniela Schwarzer, a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, said: ‘Russia has limited interest in dialogue and in particular an open conversation about security in Europe.

‘The conference is an occasion for the political West to show unity vis-a-vis Russia and vis-a-vis authoritarian regimes more generally.’

U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday there was now every indication Russia was planning to invade Ukraine in the next few days and was preparing a pretext to justify it, after Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow rebels traded fire in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin accused him of stoking tensions and threatened unspecified ‘military-technical measures’.

Schwarzer noted that the conference, while scaled back compared to pre-pandemic ones, would be the first physical meeting of the international security and foreign policy community in two years. In-person conversations were key to ‘building trust’, she said. 

The Ukraine standoff is not the only crisis that will keep conference attendees busy. Roundtables on Saturday, the main day of events, will also address the fragile security situation in the Sahel and the revival of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal. 

Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger told reporters he could not recall a time when there were ‘so many overlapping crises’.

On Friday, the main program kicks off from 1230 GMT with speeches by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Ahead of conference’s opening ceremony, Ms Baerbock said Moscow needed to show ‘serious steps towards de-escalation’.

‘With an unprecedented deployment of troops on the border with Ukraine and Cold War demands, Russia is challenging fundamental principles of the European peace order,’ Baerbock said in a statement. 

Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven club of rich nations – including France, Britain, the US and Japan – will discuss the Ukraine crisis on the conference sidelines Saturday.

The talks will be hosted by Baerbock, whose country currently holds the G7 presidency.

‘Even tiny steps towards peace are better than big steps towards war. But we also need serious steps towards de-escalation from Russia,’ she said. 

Member of the  Ukrainian Air Assault Forces take part in tactical drills at a training ground in an unknown location in Ukraine

Member of the  Ukrainian Air Assault Forces take part in tactical drills at a training ground in an unknown location in Ukraine

The Ukrainian Air Assault Forces carry out tactical drills in Ukraine amid the build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders

The Ukrainian Air Assault Forces carry out tactical drills in Ukraine amid the build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders 

Servicemen take part in drills and prepare for action as US and Western intelligence agencies warn of a Russian 'false flag' operation

Servicemen take part in drills and prepare for action as US and Western intelligence agencies warn of a Russian ‘false flag’ operation 

Tactical drills are carried out at a training ground in Ukraine as the country calls on the international community to condemn what it said were provocations by Russia in separatist-held eastern Ukrainian areas

Tactical drills are carried out at a training ground in Ukraine as the country calls on the international community to condemn what it said were provocations by Russia in separatist-held eastern Ukrainian areas

Pro-Moscow rebels claim to have thwarted ‘sabotage’ mission on chlorine tanks after US warned of ‘false flag’ chemical weapons attack to justify an invasion 

Pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine claim to have thwarted a ‘sabotage’ attack on chlorine tanks, just a day after the US warned they could stage a false flag chemical attack to create the pre-text for a Russian invasion.

Commanders from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic claimed a unit of around 10 or 12 people including Polish-speaking saboteurs attacked a chlorine plant in the town of Horlivka on Friday.

Poland is a NATO member which neighbours Ukraine and has spoken out against the invasion, whilst also welcoming deployments of US troops, weapons and vehicles over the last few weeks.

The rebels even supplied video which they claimed had come from a body camera taken from a dead enemy combatant, showing them opening fire. The footage does not clearly show where the person is or what they are firing at.  

Moscow-backed rebels claim to have thwarted a sabotage attack on chlorine tanks near Donetsk, and even released what they claimed was bodycam footage taken from one of the dead saboteurs

Moscow-backed rebels claim to have thwarted a sabotage attack on chlorine tanks near Donetsk, and even released what they claimed was bodycam footage taken from one of the dead saboteurs

A statement from the DPR ‘people’s militia’ – with close ties to the Russian armed forces and secret services – said: ‘Our observers revealed the movement of two special-purpose groups of Ukrainian armed forces numbering 10 and 12 people.

‘Our defenders were forced to open fire from duty weapons. The enemy suffered losses of at least two killed, three wounded and was forced to retreat.’ 

The statement from the militia said: ‘According to our reconnaissance, saboteurs planned to blow up a container with chlorine on the territory of a sewage treatment plant near the city of Gorlovka (Horlivka).

‘At the site of the clash, foreign-made personal protective equipment and ammunition, as well as an action camera mounted on a bulletproof vest, were found.’

The militia claimed that ‘shortly before the clash, we intercepted the conversations of saboteurs in Polish.

Western leaders, led by the US, have been repeatedly warning that Russia or Moscow-backed separatist forces will try to stage a false flag operation that would justify Putin invading on the basis of ‘protecting’ ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

The 'attack' comes just a day after the US warned rebels would try to stage a false flag chemical weapons attack in order to justify Putin marching his troops across the border

The ‘attack’ comes just a day after the US warned rebels would try to stage a false flag chemical weapons attack in order to justify Putin marching his troops across the border

Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned just yesterday that this may take the form of a real or faked chemical weapons attack, which may also involve the use of faked corpses and mourners.

Other possibilities raised by the US include a faked drone bombing, and disinformation placed in Russian media by officials about mass killings of civilians. 

Russian prosecutors are currently pushing such claims at the UN, alleging that they have uncovered mass graves of hundreds of civilians killed by Ukrainian shelling.

At the UN last night, Russia submitted documents that claimed 9,000 civilians include 126 children have been killed by Ukraine’s forces since 2014 – the last time Putin invaded the country.

Kiev has rubbished these claims, and instead accuses rebel forces of firing shells at them and inflicting casualties – including one fired yesterday which hit a kindergarten and left three wounded. 

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak attend a welcoming ceremony before their meeting in Warsaw, Poland

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak attend a welcoming ceremony before their meeting in Warsaw, Poland

Service members of the Ukrainian Air Assault Forces take part in tactical drills amid increased Russian military action

Service members of the Ukrainian Air Assault Forces take part in tactical drills amid increased Russian military action

Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of his security council today, amid continued warnings from the West that a Ukraine invasion is now just days away

Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of his security council today, amid continued warnings from the West that a Ukraine invasion is now just days away

Russian cruiser Moskva of the Black Sea Fleet opens fire with its main guns during combat drills around Crimea on Friday

Russian cruiser Moskva of the Black Sea Fleet opens fire with its main guns during combat drills around Crimea on Friday

An image released by the Russian Defence Ministry shows cruiser Moskva of the Black Sea Fleet taking part in combat drills

An image released by the Russian Defence Ministry shows cruiser Moskva of the Black Sea Fleet taking part in combat drills

Russian tanks are pictured lining up beside railway tracks to be loaded on to transports in what Moscow claims is a withdrawal of forces from Ukraine's borders, but the West says are actually units moving closer to the frontlines

Russian tanks are pictured lining up beside railway tracks to be loaded on to transports in what Moscow claims is a withdrawal of forces from Ukraine’s borders, but the West says are actually units moving closer to the frontlines

Russian T-72B tanks are loaded on the back of a train at an unknown location on the border with Ukraine, as Kiev warns troop numbers in the region have now reached 149,000

Russian T-72B tanks are loaded on the back of a train at an unknown location on the border with Ukraine, as Kiev warns troop numbers in the region have now reached 149,000

A top-down view of a Russian T-72B tank shows it being loaded on to the back of a train transport somewhere near Ukraine

A top-down view of a Russian T-72B tank shows it being loaded on to the back of a train transport somewhere near Ukraine

A video released by Russia's defence ministry shows tanks loaded on to the back of a train transport somewhere near Ukraine

A video released by Russia’s defence ministry shows tanks loaded on to the back of a train transport somewhere near Ukraine

The UK has warned that more than half of Russia's forces near Ukraine are less than 30 miles from the border, despite Moscow claiming to be pulling back (pictured, tanks on a transport somewhere near the border)

The UK has warned that more than half of Russia’s forces near Ukraine are less than 30 miles from the border, despite Moscow claiming to be pulling back (pictured, tanks on a transport somewhere near the border)

‘Declarations of willingness to talk must be backed up by real offers to talk. Declarations of troop withdrawals must be backed up by verifiable troop withdrawals.’

Also on Friday, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin was paying a visit to Poland – which neighbours Ukraine and is where thousands of US troops and permanent American missile bases are stationed – as a show of support.

After a welcome ceremony in the capital Warsaw, Austin dismissed Russian assertions that forces are being withdrawn from areas around Ukraine and said the United States was committed to the defense of NATO allies.

‘What Mr. Putin did not want was a stronger NATO on his flank, and that’s exactly what he has today,’ Austin told a press conference after announcing the planned sale of Abrams battle tanks to NATO member Poland.

Mr Blaszczak said that Poland will be willing to help refugees displaced by the fighting, amid warnings that up to a million people could flee across the border if war breaks out. 

Meanwhile Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a summit in Brussels that sanctions being prepared for Russia in the event of an attack would be harsher than those imposed after the attack on Crimea in 2014.  

Elsewhere, the Ukrainian military and independent conflict monitors reported a large uptick in fighting along the frontlines between Kiev’s forces and separatist rebels in the country’s east. 

Ukraine said there were 60 incidents of shelling along virtually the whole of the frontline Thursday, the most-active day of attacks since 2018. Shelling continued early Friday, according to witnesses.

International monitors tasked with keeping the peace reported more than 300 explosions in 24 hours ending Thursday, around four times as many as an average day over the past month.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, on Friday accused monitor groups of lying about what is happening in eastern Ukraine and accused Ukrainian forces of firing with banned weapons.

Rebel commanders also claim they are being shot at by Ukrainian forces, but Kiev has rubbished the claim – saying they are the ones under ‘unprovoked’ attack.

The village of Stanytsia Luhanska suffered more than its share of explosions on Thursday. One shell crashed into a kindergarten, blasting a hole in the wall that sent soccer balls flying off the classroom shelves just as the school day started. Others blasted craters into the schoolyard and shattered windows of nearby homes.

‘We heard the sound of broken glass. The children were very scared. Some kids started crying immediately, and the explosions continued for the next 20 minutes,’ said Olena Yaryna, the school director.

At Valentyna Melnychenko’s nearby home, the explosions filled her living room and hall with smoke.

‘I switched off the TV, and there were seven more shellings and then it stopped,’ she said as she surveyed the damage outside, her hair covered in a bright pink scarf that contrasted with the gray debris behind her.

Three people were wounded and half the village lost power. Oleksandr Pavliuk, a Ukrainian army commander, said the explosions were intended to provoke a response and ultimately a counter-response, echoing the warnings from the United States.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been in place in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since 2014 to try and maintain the cease-fire. But even they were drawn into the fray this week.

In addition to the explosions, the organization recorded nearly 600 cease-fire violations over the course of a day, more than double the average for the past month. And three of the organization’s small surveillance drones went astray after the GPS signal was jammed; a fourth couldn’t make it off the ground without a signal.

Electronic interference went further overnight, when the cellphone network went down in Luhansk for hours, for the second night in a row, according to an Associated Press journalist working in the area. 

Ukrainians decorate a street with symbolic angels as they commemorate those killed during the 2014 Maidan protests which ousted the country's last pro-Moscow president and set it on a path to closer alignment with the West

Ukrainians decorate a street with symbolic angels as they commemorate those killed during the 2014 Maidan protests which ousted the country’s last pro-Moscow president and set it on a path to closer alignment with the West

A girl looks at paper angels paying tribute at the Maidan activists memorial also called the 'Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred'

A girl looks at paper angels paying tribute at the Maidan activists memorial also called the ‘Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred’

A woman places a red carnation and a symbolic paper angel at a memorial paying tribute to those killed during the 2014 Maidan protest which ousted Ukraine's last pro-Moscow government

A woman places a red carnation and a symbolic paper angel at a memorial paying tribute to those killed during the 2014 Maidan protest which ousted Ukraine’s last pro-Moscow government

German police officers stand guard at a perimeter fence set up around the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich where a security conference will take place today

German police officers stand guard at a perimeter fence set up around the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich where a security conference will take place today

A police officer with a dog patrols the grounds around the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, where a security conference will take place today with Ukraine high on the agenda

A police officer with a dog patrols the grounds around the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, where a security conference will take place today with Ukraine high on the agenda

US Vice President Kamala Harris is greeted by Bavaria's State Premier Markus Soeder as arrives at the airport in Munich, southern Germany, ahead of the conference

US Vice President Kamala Harris is greeted by Bavaria’s State Premier Markus Soeder as arrives at the airport in Munich, southern Germany, ahead of the conference

The latest warning comes after a day of fraught relations after Moscow’s foreign ministry handed a lengthy document to the US ambassador to Russia demanding that all of Washington’s weapons in central and eastern Europe and the Baltics be removed – along with all weapons already sent to Ukraine – and repeated demands that Ukraine is banned from joining NATO. 

In the document, which the US is expected to reject, Moscow accused Washington of failing to respond constructively to the demands it presented in December, including for a halt to the eastern enlargement of NATO. 

Russia’s ‘red lines’ were still being ignored, it said in a riposte to US and NATO counter-proposals received last month.  

At the same time, the US deputy ambassador to Moscow was expelled – prompting Joe Biden to say he now expects Russia to invade Ukraine in a ‘matter of days’ and that he will not be speaking to Putin in the meantime. 

Blinken was in New York on Thursday after pushing back his plans to travel to the Munich Security Conference, which is likely to be the focus of international diplomacy for the next few days.

He laid out what Washington knew of Kremlin planning, starting with a ‘manufactured provocation and theatrical emergency meetings of the Russian government.

Next would come a promise to protect Russians in Ukraine, before cuber attacks and air strikes would begin. Tanks and soldiers would then move on key targets, including Kiev.

His purpose, he said, in laying out the intelligence findings was to persuade Putin to follow a different course.

Instead he demanded that Moscow issue an unequivocal promise that it will not invade Ukraine.

‘The Russian government can announce today, with no qualification, equivocation or deflection, that Russia will not invade Ukraine,’ he said.

‘State it clearly. State it plainly to the world, and then demonstrate it by sending your troops, your tanks, the planes back to their barracks and hangars and sending your diplomats to the negotiating table.’  

In response, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin said Blinken’s scenarios were ‘regrettable.’

‘I would even go so far as to say that they are dangerous because they bring in more tension into the unready tense atmosphere,’ he said, while repeating Moscow’s claims that some troops were already heading home after completing drills.

Earlier he called on the gathered foreign ministers not to turn the meeting into a ‘circus’ or use it to spread ‘baseless accusations.’

Blinken, speaking in front of the UN Security Council on Thursday, said: ‘As we meet today the most immediate threat to peace and security is Russia’s looming aggression against Ukraine.

‘The stakes go far beyond Ukraine. This is a moment of peril for the lives and safety of millions of people.’

‘This crisis directly affects every member of this council and every country in the world because the basic principles that sustain peace and security – principles that were enshrined in the wake of two world wars and the Cold War – are under threat,

‘The principle that one country cannot change the borders of another by force. The principle that one country cannot dictate another’s choices or policies or with whom it will associate. The principal of national sovereignty.’

The Russian document sent to the US ambassador on Thursday listed a series of demands to de-escalate the situation around Ukraine. 

These included a halt to Western weapons supplies and removal of those already sent, the withdrawal of Western military advisers and instructors from Ukraine, and a halt to any joint NATO exercises with Ukraine.

‘In the absence of the readiness of the American side to agree on firm, legally binding guarantees of our security from the United States and its allies, Russia will be forced to respond, including through the implementation of military-technical measures,’ the document said.

Russia has suggested in the past that ‘military-technical measures’ could include missile and troop deployments.  



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