Russian-backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine announced an evacuation of their breakaway region's residents to Russia on Friday, heightening fears that Moscow was planning to use an escalation in the long-running conflict as a pretext to invade.
The move comes amid a spike in shelling in the area that has stoked fresh global alarm, with tensions rising once again after the United States and its allies disputed Moscow’s claims of a troop pullback from near its neighbor's borders.
Moscow announced large-scale drills involving its nuclear forces starting Saturday that will be overseen by President Vladimir Putin and will offer a timely reminder of the country’s nuclear might, as Europe faces its gravest security crisis since the Cold War.
President Joe Biden said Friday that the U.S. believes Putin has decided to invade Ukraine, but he also stressed that Russia could still "choose diplomacy."
"As of this moment, I’m convinced he’s made the decision. We have reason to believe that," Biden told reporters at the White House following a call with NATO and European leaders about Russian aggression against Ukraine. He cited U.S. intelligence for his assessment.
"It is not too late to de-escalate and return to the bargaining table," Biden added.
Russia now has between 40-50 percent of its military forces around Ukraine in attack position, according to a U.S. defense official. The troops are still several miles from the border, the official said, adding that they've reached this level of readiness in the last 48 hours.
But the focus of the world's concern Friday was eastern Ukraine.
Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic,” announced the evacuation in a video posted on social media. He claimed without evidence that Kyiv was planning its own military assault on the region in the country’s east where the Moscow-supported separatists have been fighting government forces since 2014. Leonid Pasechnik, leader of the neighboring self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic,” gave a similar order.
Russian state media later reported that Putin had ordered payments of 10,000 rubles ($130), hot meals and medical care to those who crossed the border.
There was no evidence Kyiv was planning such an attack, and Ukraine says that its forces have had to show restraint after an increase in cease-fire violations by the Russian-backed separatists they believe is a ploy designed to provoke Ukraine into retaliation.
“We categorically reject Russia’s attempts to aggravate the already tense security situation,” Ukraine’s military chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said in a statement. He added that Russia had launched “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.”
His comments came around the same time that a blast destroyed a car outside a government building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, according to an Associated Press journalist at the scene.
Wreckage could be seen outside the offices of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” and Denis Sinenkov, the head of the Donetsk rebels’ military, said it was his car, according to the Interfax news agency.
Later, a spokesman for Ukraine's foreign ministry said Ukraine was not conducting or planning any sabotage acts.
The U.S. has warned for weeks of a “false flag” operation, which Russia could use as an excuse to trigger an attack or incursion into Ukraine.
Ukraine's defense ministry later tweeted that it had intelligence that Russian forces had planted explosives in buildings in Donetsk, and it urged people to stay home and not use public transport.
As hopes for a diplomatic solution to the crisis faded, the State Department said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Europe next week — provided Russia does not attack its neighbor beforehand.
Vice President Kamala Harris also reiterated U.S. support for NATO and efforts to strengthen the group’s defenses during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the German city of Munich.
“As a member of NATO, we feel very strongly about and will always be committed to the principle of territorial integrity and sovereignty,” Harris said at the start of the meeting.
Harris met with a series of world leaders on Friday, and is set to participate in further talks on Saturday at the annual Munich Security Conference. A senior administration official said she'd met with Blinken “several times” on Friday to coordinate strategy.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is also set to attend the conference, but the Biden administration is concerned that Putin will somehow exploit his absence, four people familiar with the matter told NBC News.
A spokesperson for Zelenskyy said he was planning to attend but was “observing the situation, which is getting more and more dramatic.” They added that if there was “a dramatic escalation or some worrying messages, then he might change his mind.”
Biden hosted a call Friday afternoon with NATO and European leaders to discuss “Russia’s buildup of military troops on the border of Ukraine and our continued efforts to pursue deterrence and diplomacy,” a White House official said.
The group “pledged to continue pursuing diplomacy to de-escalate tensions while ensuring readiness to impose swift, coordinated economic costs on Russia should it choose further conflict," according to a White House description of the call.
After the call, Biden said: "The bottom line is this: The United States and our allies and partners will support the Ukrainian people. We will hold Russia accountable for its actions. The West is united and resolved. We’re ready to impose severe sanctions on Russia if it further invades Ukraine."
Deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology Anne Neuberger told reporters Friday that the U.S. believes that Russia was responsible for widespread cyberattacks against Ukrainian banks earlier this week.
“While of limited impact, this recent spate of cyber attacks in Ukraine are consistent with what a Russian effort could look like, and laying the groundwork for more disruptive cyberattacks accompanying a potential further invasion of Ukraine sovereign territory,” Neuberger said.
The U.S. is also going to announce it is sending around 200 American troops and Stryker armored fighting vehicles to Hungary, two defense officials told NBC News. The group is in the European Command area and will move in the coming days, said the officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Ukrainian government troops have been fighting the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014 — when Moscow annexed Crimea and threw its weight behind the breakaway forces — in a simmering conflict that's claimed some 14,000 lives.
The conflict has been closely watched over fears it could become a source of potential escalation in the broader crisis. And this week, with Russia massing as many as 150,000 troops around Ukraine's borders and the West saying they have seen no sign of a claimed pullback, there has been an uptick in the violence.
Moscow has consistently denied it has any plans to invade its neighbor. It said Friday it was closely watching the escalation of shelling in eastern Ukraine, describing the situation as potentially very dangerous.
Ukraine meanwhile, said the Moscow-backed separatists were “placing its artillery systems near residential buildings” in the hope Kyiv's forces would return fire. A day earlier, Kyiv said the Russian-backed separatists were responsible for “a big provocation” after the shelling of a kindergarten in territory controlled by the Ukrainian government.
“We are constantly faced with provocations, shelling, cyberattacks, dangerous maneuvers of aviation, disabling of mobile communications,” Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told the country’s parliament Friday.
On the other side, Russian-backed separatist forces in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk areas reported more shelling by Ukrainian forces along the tense line of contact early Friday. Ukraine's military chief, Zaluzhnyi, responded that “our actions are purely defensive.”
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said they recorded almost 600 cease-fire violations in total Thursday, a huge spike compared with recent months.
As a policy the OSCE does not tend to attribute blame.