Russia unveils nuclear drills as Putin blames Kyiv for ‘escalation’ in eastern Ukraine

Moscow said it planned to hold nuclear exercises to test ballistic and cruise missiles as President Vladimir Putin blamed Kyiv for “escalating” tensions in eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed separatists have ordered an evacuation of civilians to Russia.

The developments heightened fears that Russia is planning to invade Ukraine after the US warned an attack was “imminent” and raised its estimate of Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border to more than 169,000.

Russia’s defence ministry said on Friday that units from its air force, army and navy would take part in the drills to test its launch crews and personnel as well as its nuclear and conventional weaponry. Putin will personally supervise the drills.

“We are seeing an escalation in the Donbas,” the Russian president said on Friday after meeting his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko.

He denied Russia was planning to invade, adding: “Of course, we are looking at what is happening around the world and around us. But we have clearly defined guidelines in line with the national interests of the Russian people and the Russian state.”

The timing of Russia’s nuclear drills, which US officials had interpreted as a show of strength by Moscow to Nato, will further add to the sense of foreboding in western capitals over Russia’s intentions in Ukraine. US president Joe Biden warned on Thursday that Russia was on the brink of invading Ukraine within “several days”, saying Washington believed the Kremlin was engaged in “a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in”.

“A new war threatens to break out in the middle of our Europe,” Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, said in a speech to the Munich Security Conference on Friday. “This is one of the most dangerous moments, where from provocation and disinformation we can see escalation.”

Michael Carpenter, US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, provided the US’s updated estimate of troop numbers near Ukraine and described it as “the most significant military mobilisation” on the continent since the second world war.

As Ukraine and Russia accused each other of shelling in the Ukrainian region of Donbas, the separatists fighting Kyiv announced that they were evacuating women, children and the elderly to Rostov in southern Russia, the nearest major city.

Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, claimed in a video message that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky had given the Ukrainian army orders to attack the separatists “in the next few hours”. He did not provide evidence.

But Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, “categorically” denied what he called “Russian disinformation reports” on Kyiv’s alleged offensive operations or acts of sabotage. “Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas,” he said.

Ukraine’s army says it recorded 60 ceasefire violations in the past 24 hours in the war-torn region, including 43 artillery salvos, that it said were attempts by Russia and its proxies to trigger a pretext for further aggression.

Although the Kremlin said the annual nuclear exercises — which were not held in 2020 or 2021 because of the pandemic — were long planned, the last time the exercises were moved to February from their usual autumn timeframe was shortly before Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, told reporters the exercises were regular and should not “give anyone cause for questions and concern”.

Russia has the largest nuclear forces in the world, with just under 4,500 warheads in its stockpile. The nuclear drills follow its massive military exercises in Belarus, which are set to end on Sunday.

Putin said on Tuesday that Russia had begun pulling back its forces from the Ukrainian border, but western countries have accused Moscow of publishing videos of tanks and artillery supposedly heading back to base as a smokescreen for further troop deployments.

On the same day it unveiled planned nuclear drills, Moscow also said it would pursue talks with western powers after Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, invited his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to meet in Europe next week to discuss “mutual security concerns”. Russia’s ambassador to the UK said the meeting could be held in Geneva or Finland, according to Interfax.

Moscow has said it is willing to talk about issues such as arms control and deconfliction measures, but insists it would only do so as part of a broader discussion of its core security grievances with Nato.

In Ukraine, defence minister Oleksii Reznikov told parliament on Friday that the probability of a major escalation was “low”.

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