Russia and Belarus extend major military exercises near Ukraine

Band Polina Devitt and Polina Nikolskaya

MOSCOW/DONETSK, Ukraine, February 20 (Reuters)Russia and Belarus are extending military exercises that were due to end on Sunday, the Belarusian defense minister said, in a step that is further intensifying pressure on Ukraine as Western leaders warn of an imminent Russian invasion.

The decision to extend the exercises was taken due to military activities near the borders of Russia and Belarus and an escalation of the situation in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, said the Belarusian Defense Ministry in a statement.

NATO says Russia has up to 30,000 troops in Belarus and could use them as part of an invasion force to attack Ukraine, which lies south of Belarus. Moscow denies such an intention.

The Kremlin has not commented on the drills in Belarus.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said repeated warnings from the West that Russia was about to invade Ukraine were provocative and could have adverse consequences, without giving details.

Russia and its allies say Ukraine and the West are stoking tensions by sending NATO reinforcements to Eastern Europe.

Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said the aim of the extended drills was “to ensure an adequate response and de-escalation of military preparations from the bad guys near our common borders”.

Western countries are preparing sanctions that they say would be far-reaching against Russian companies and individuals in the event of an invasion.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a BBC interview on Sunday that such sanctions would “hit very, very hard” and could include restrictions on Russian companies’ access to the dollar and pound.

However, he acknowledged that such threats might not deter Moscow.

“We have to accept for now that (Russian President) Vladimir Putin may be thinking illogically about this and not seeing the catastrophe ahead,” Johnson said.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the West should impose some of the sanctions now, rather than waiting for an invasion.

“Russia needs to be stopped right now. We see how events are unfolding,” Kuleba said.

In recent days, tensions have centered on the part of eastern Ukraine that Russian-backed rebels seized in 2014, the same year Russia annexed Crimea to Ukraine. More than 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the east.

Incidents of shelling across the line dividing government forces and separatists – which have been sporadic in the past – have risen sharply in the past week.

On Sunday, a Reuters reporter heard explosions in the center of the city of Donetsk, in the separatist-controlled eastern Donbass region. Heavy shelling was heard elsewhere in the area.

SMS messages sent to residents of Donetsk urged men to report for military service.

More than 30,000 people from Donetsk and the neighboring city of Luhansk have crossed the Russian border in the past 24 hours, TASS news agency said, citing authorities in Russia’s Rostov region. Separatists began evacuating residents on Friday saying Ukraine was planning to attack – something Kiev has denied.

Kiev’s Western allies fear Russia is using the escalation as a pretext for a wider conflict.

TROOP REINFORCEMENT

The renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine follows a weeks-long buildup of Russian troops in the north, east and south of the country. The West estimates that 150,000 or more Russian troops are currently near Ukraine’s borders.

“The plan we see is for something that could really be the biggest war in Europe since 1945 just in terms of scale,” Johnson said.

As Westerners feared an escalating war, US President Joe Biden was due to summon his top advisers later in the day to discuss the crisis. Biden said on Saturday he believed Russia could launch an attack “at any time,” despite assurances from the Kremlin that some troops were returning to their permanent bases after military exercises.

A Russian diplomat at the UN says no one should tell Russia where and when to conduct military exercises, adding that US and UK intelligence assessments cannot be trusted, citing mistakes made before the Iraq war .

Foreign ministers from the wealthy group of G7 countries said on Saturday they had seen no evidence that Russia was reducing military activity in the region.

Russia ordered the military buildup several months ago while demanding that NATO prevent Ukraine from joining the alliance. He says Western warnings that they are planning to invade Ukraine are hysterical and dangerous.

However, he warned of unspecified “military-technical” measures if demands, including a NATO withdrawal from Eastern Europe, are not met.

BOMBING IN THE EAST

In eastern Ukraine, local military forces in one of the breakaway areas, Lugansk, said on Sunday that two civilians had been killed and five buildings damaged in shelling by the Ukrainian army. The Russian Investigative Committee will investigate the case, the RIA news agency said.

Two Ukrainian soldiers were reportedly killed and four injured on Saturday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said water services had been disrupted for more than a million people in the area and called on all parties to spare civilian infrastructure.

Ukraine’s military said in a statement that its forces are sticking to a ceasefire agreement and “open fire only when the actions of the Russian occupation forces pose a threat to the lives and health of civilians.” Ukrainian soldiers and civilians”.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba said Ukraine was not planning or carrying out any offensive operations.

GRAPH-How a Russian-Ukrainian conflict could affect global markets

West could reduce access to US dollar for Russian companies, says Johnson

Separatist rhetoric and ‘false flag’ fears stoke tensions in Ukraine

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Polina Nikolskaya and Guy Faulconbridge Writing by Frank Jack Daniel Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Frances Kerry)

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