Russian-backed separatists announce civilian evacuation from eastern Ukraine as escalation stokes fears of invasion

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry then tweeted that it had information 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 Secretary of State Antony Blinken would meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Europe next week, on the condition that the Russia does not attack its neighbor beforehand.

Vice President Kamala Harris also reiterated US 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 are very committed 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 expected to take part in further discussions on Saturday at the annual Munich security conference. A senior administration official said she met with Blinken “several times” on Friday to coordinate the strategy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is also expected to attend the conference, but the Biden administration fears Putin is somehow exploiting his absence, four people familiar with the matter told NBC News.

A spokesperson for Zelenskyy said he planned to attend but was “observing the situation, which is becoming increasingly dramatic”. They added that if there was “a dramatic escalation or disturbing messages, then he might change his mind”.

Biden hosted a Friday afternoon call with NATO and European leaders to discuss “Russia’s military troop buildup on Ukraine’s border and our continued efforts to pursue deterrence and diplomacy. “said a White House official.

The group ‘is committed to pursuing diplomacy to de-escalate tensions while ensuring it is prepared to impose swift and coordinated economic costs on Russia should it choose a new conflict,’ according to a description of the call. to the White House.

After the call, Biden said, “The bottom line is this: The United States and our allies and partners will stand with the Ukrainian people. We will hold Russia accountable for its actions. The West is united and resolute. We are prepared to impose severe sanctions on Russia if it invades Ukraine further.”

Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber ​​and Emerging Technologies Anne Neuberger told reporters on Friday that the United States believes Russia was responsible for widespread cyberattacks on Ukrainian banks earlier this week.

“While having limited impact, this recent wave of cyberattacks in Ukraine is consistent with what a Russian effort might look like and lays the groundwork for more disruptive cyberattacks accompanying a possible further invasion of Ukraine’s sovereign territory,” Neuberger said.

The United States will also announce that it is sending about 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 Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014 – when Moscow annexed Crimea and threw its weight behind dissident forces – in a simmering conflict that has claimed some 14,000 lives .

The conflict has been closely watched over fears it could become a potential source of escalation in the wider crisis. And this week, as Russia has massed up to 150,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders and the West says it has seen no signs of a claimed withdrawal, there has been an upsurge in violence.

Moscow has always denied that it intends to invade its neighbour. He said on Friday he was closely monitoring the escalating shelling in eastern Ukraine, describing the situation as potentially very dangerous.

Ukraine, meanwhile, said Moscow-backed separatists were “placing their artillery systems near residential buildings” in hopes that Kiev forces would retaliate. A day earlier, Kiev has said Russian-backed separatists were responsible for a “big provocation” after a kindergarten was bombed in territory controlled by the Ukrainian government.

“We are constantly facing provocations, bombings, cyberattacks, dangerous aerial maneuvers, disabling of mobile communications,” Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told the country’s parliament on Friday.

On the other side, Russian-backed separatist forces in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk reported renewed shelling by Ukrainian forces along the tense line of contact early on Friday. Ukrainian military leader Zaluzhnyi replied that “our actions are purely defensive”.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said they recorded nearly 600 ceasefire violations in total on Thursday, a huge spike from recent months.

As a policy, the OSCE does not tend to assign blame.

Associated press, Reuters, Oksana Parafeniuk, Rebecca Sinderbrand, Courtney Kube and Gregorian Dareh contributed.

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