Russia Extends Troop Drills as Ukraine Appeals for Cease-Fire

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia extended military drills near Ukraine’s northern borders Sunday amid increased fears that two days of sustained shelling along the contact line between soldiers and Russa-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine could spark an invasion. Ukraine’s president appealed for a cease-fire.

The Russian contingent brought large numbers of troops to Belarus and the exercises had been originally scheduled to finish Sunday. Concerns were raised about the Russian presence, which could have been used to attack Kyiv (the Ukrainian capital), which is a small city with around 3 million inhabitants. It’s only a three-hour drive from Kiev.

Western leaders warned Russia that it was ready to strike its neighbor. The country is bordered on all three sides by approximately 150,000 Russian soldiers and warplanes. Russia has been conducting naval drills in the Black Sea and held nuke drills in Belarus.
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For months, the United States of America and European nations have claimed that Russia has been trying to invent pretexts for invasion. If it did, they threatened to impose severe sanctions immediately.

“ We’re talking about the potential for war in Europe,” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said Sunday at a security conference in Munich, Germany. “It’s been over 70 years, and through those 70 years … there has been peace and security.”

A top European Union official, Charles Michel, said: “The big question remains: does the Kremlin want dialogue?”

“We cannot forever offer an olive branch while Russia conducts missile tests and continues to amass troops,” said Michel, the president of the European Council.

Volodymyr Zeleskyy, Ukraine’s President, called Vladimir Putin Saturday to ask him to pick a spot where they can meet and try to solve the crisis. Zelenskyy also appealed on Twitter to a cease-fire. Russia has denied plans to invade, but the Kremlin had not responded to Zelenskyy’s offer to meet by Sunday, and it was Belarus — not Russia — that announced the extension of the drills.

NATO estimated that Belarus has 30,000 Russian troops.

After a call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin blamed Ukraine for the escalation at the contact line and NATO for “pumping modern weapons and ammunition” into Ukraine. The Kremlin statement mentioned a cease-fire only in passing and made no mention of Zelenskyy’s call for a meeting.

Life in Kyiv was essentially the same on Sunday, with full-scale church services and brunches. Katerina Spanchak fled Lugansk, where she was occupied by separatists, many years back and said that she had prayed for peace.

“We are people, we all love life, and we are all united by our love of life. It is important to appreciate life every day. That’s why I think everything will be fine,” Spanchak said outside services at St. Michael’s monastery.

In Lugansk in eastern Ukraine where her family still lives, as well as Donetsk to the north, separatist leaders ordered an order for a complete military mobilization. More civilians were sent to Russia by the same leader. Russia issued approximately 700,000.000 passports to the residents of the rebel-held areas. For some, the justification of military action might come from claims that Russian citizens may be in danger.

Officials from the separatist territories said that Ukrainian forces carried out several artillery operations over the course of the day, and two civilians were injured in an attack on a Russian-controlled village. Ukraine’s military said two soldiers died in firing from the separatist side on Saturday.

Ukraine’s leader criticized the U.S. and other Western nations for holding back on new sanctions for Russia. Zelenskyy, in comments before the conference, also questioned the West’s refusal to allow Ukraine to join NATO immediately. Putin demands that NATO disallow Ukraine from being a NATO member.

U.S. President Joe Biden said late Friday that based on the latest American intelligence, he was now “convinced” that Putin has decided to invade Ukraine in coming days and assault the capital. Biden would meet his national security staff later in Washington.

An American military official stated that an estimated 40 to 50 percent of ground forces around Ukraine have moved closer to the border to take out attack positions. According to the official who spoke under anonymity in order to talk about internal U.S assessments, this change was occurring for approximately a week. However, it did not mean that Putin had committed to an invasion.

The lines of communication remain open between Moscow and West: Macron talked with Putin for almost two hours on Sunday before having a 30-minute conversation with the Ukrainian president. Antony Blinken (U.S. Secretary) and Sergey Lavrov (Russian foreign minister), agreed to meet next Tuesday.

Blinken claimed Sunday that the U.S. continued to use every tool possible to prevent Putin from entering Ukraine. But, he said recent developments, such as the deployment of troops to Belarus and increased shelling along the line of contact, indicated Putin is well-ahead of U.S. intelligence. “He is following the script almost to the letter,” Blinken told CNN.

“Up to the last minute, there is still an option for him to pull back,” Blinken told NBC’s Meet the Press. According to him, his invitation to Lavrov’s European meeting in Europe was contingent on Russia not advancing into Ukraine.

Macron’s office said both the Ukrainian and Russian leaders had agreed to work toward a diplomatic solution “in coming days and coming weeks.”

There are immediate concerns about eastern Ukraine. Since 2014, Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russian rebels in an ongoing conflict which has resulted in the death of around 14,000 persons.

The separatist leaders and Ukraine traded accusations about escalating. Russia on Saturday said at least two shells fired from a government-held part of eastern Ukraine landed across the border, but Ukraine’s foreign minister dismissed that claim as “a fake statement.”

“When tension is escalated to the maximum, as it is now, for example, on the line of contact, then any spark, any unplanned incident or any minor planned provocation can lead to irreparable consequences,” Putin’ spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview that aired Sunday on Russian state television.

Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines claimed they were not allowed to fire back. Zahar Leshushun looked out with his periscope into the distance, following all the latest news from a trench near Zolote.

“Right now, we don’t respond to their fire because …” the soldier said before being interrupted by the sound of an incoming shell. “Oh! They’re shooting at us right now. They are aiming at the command post.”

Sporadic violence is a common occurrence along the lines separating Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists for many years. However, recent explosions are orders of magnitude more than those recently recorded by international observers: almost 1,500 explosions in just 24 hours.

Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russia separatist government in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, cited an “immediate threat of aggression” from Ukrainian forces in his announcement of a call to arms. Ukrainian officials denied plans to seize rebel-controlled territories by force.

His counterpart from the Luhansk area made a similar statement. With an announcement that seemed to reflect efforts to label Ukraine the aggressor, rebels evacuated civilians to Russia Friday.

The AP verified that metadata taken from the two videos by separatists announcing evacuations revealed the files were created on two days ago. U.S. authorities have alleged the Kremlin’s effort to come up with an invasion pretext could include staged, prerecorded videos.


Heintz reported on Moscow. Mstyslav Cernov in Zolote (Ukraine), Geir Moulson at Berlin, Aamer madhani at Munich, Ellen Knickmeyer, Robert Burns, Darlene Superville and Darlene Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this article. Liudas Dapokus in Vilnius and Yuras Karamanau in Kyiv also contributed.


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