Ukrainian rebels mobilise troops as Putin oversees missile drills amid invasion fears

The move came as the US warned Russia could invade Ukraine any day. Credit: AP/PA

Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine have ordered a full military mobilisation amid a spike in violence in the war-torn region, with further fears from the West that it could be used as a pretext for invasion by Russia.

Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russian separatist government in the Donetsk region, released a statement on Saturday announcing a full troop mobilisation and urging reservists to show up at military enlistment offices. A similar announcement followed from Leonid Pasechnik, separatist leader in the Luhansk region.

It came as the Kremlin announced President Vladimir Putin will oversee drills of Russia's nuclear forces involving multiple practice missile launches on Saturday.

Mr Pushilin claimed the decision was due to “immediate threat of aggression" from Ukrainian forces - something Ukrainian officials had vehemently denied earlier, as the two sides continue to trade accusations.

“I appeal to all the men in the republic who can hold weapons to defend their families, their children, wives, mothers," Mr Pushilin said. ”Together we will achieve the coveted victory that we all need."

Top Ukrainian military officials came under a shelling attack during a tour of the front of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine on Saturday, according to a journalist from The Associated Press who was on the tour. The journalist also said the officials fled to a bomb shelter before hustling from the area.

Ukraine’s military also claimed shelling killed a soldier on Saturday in the government-held part of the Donetsk region and that separatist forces were placing artillery in residential areas to try and provoke a response.

ITV News Political Correspondent Harry Horton has the latest on the developing crisis at the border between Ukraine and Russia

It is understood two explosions shook the rebel-controlled city of Luhansk early Saturday. The Luhansk Information Center claimed one of the blasts was in a natural gas main and cited witnesses as saying the other was at a vehicle service station.

There was no immediate word on injuries or a cause - but Luhansk officials blamed a gas main explosion earlier in the week on sabotage.

On Friday, the rebels began evacuating civilians from the conflict zone with an announcement that appeared to be part of their and Moscow’s efforts to paint Ukraine as the aggressor.

The separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting for almost eight years. But the violence along the line of contact separating the two sides, including a car bombing in the eastern city of Donetsk and a humanitarian convoy hit by shelling, has risen in recent days.

With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops now posted around Ukraine’s borders, the long-simmering separatist conflict could provide the spark for a broader attack.

US President Joe Biden said on Friday he was now “convinced” Mr Putin has decided to invade Ukraine and assault the capital, Kyiv.

Mr Biden, who for weeks had said the US was not sure if Putin had made the final decision, said his judgment had changed due to American intelligence received. He reiterated that the assault could occur in the “coming days.”

Pro-Russian rebels evacuating civilians from the the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Friday, ITV News Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo reports

“As of this moment, I’m convinced he’s made the decision,” he said. “We have reason to believe that.”

Boris Johnson said, while on his way to the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, that allies must “speak with one voice to stress to President Putin the high price he will pay for any further Russian invasion of Ukraine”.

He told world leaders at the conference that an invasion of Ukraine by Russia would spark a “generation of bloodshed and misery,” as he called for unity among the West in reacting to any attack.

He said intelligence shows a conflict between Moscow and Kyiv looks “increasingly likely”, as he vowed to block money linked to the Kremlin from being laundered through the City of London.

“As I speak to you today, we do not fully know what (Russian) President Putin intends, but the omens are grim and that is why we must stand strong together,” he told the summit.

“I believe that Russia would have absolutely nothing to gain from this catastrophic venture, and everything to lose.

“And while there is still time, I urge the Kremlin to de-escalate, to disengage its forces from the frontier and to renew our dialogue.”

Meanwhile, the Kremlin announced that it would conduct massive nuclear drills Saturday, and Putin pledged to protect Russia’s national interests against what it sees as encroaching Western threats.

Mr Biden reiterated his threat of crushing economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia if it does invade, and pressed Putin to reconsider. He said the US and its Western allies were more united than ever to ensure Russia pays a steep price for any invasion.

US president Joe Biden Credit: AP

As further indication that the Russians were preparing for a major military push, a US defense official said an estimated 40% to 50% of the ground forces deployed in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border have moved into attack positions closer to the border.

That shift has been under way for about a week, other officials have said, and does not necessarily mean Mr Putin has decided to begin an invasion. The defense official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal US military assessments.

The official also said the number of Russian ground units known as battalion tactical groups in the border area had grown to as many as 125 - up from 83 two weeks ago. Each group has 750 to 1,000 soldiers.

The West continued to reiterate that the lines of communication remain open with Russia. Along with Mr Johnson's visit to Munich on Saturday, the US and Russian defence chiefs spoke on Friday, while US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov agreed to meet next week.

Immediate worries focused on eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russia rebels since 2014 in a conflict that has killed some 14,000 people.

Fears of such escalation intensified amid Friday’s violence. A bombing struck a car outside the main government building in the rebel-held city of Donetsk, according to an Associated Press journalist there.

There were no reports of casualties and no independent confirmation of the circumstances of the blast.

Shelling and shooting are common along the line that separates Ukrainian forces and the rebels, but targeted violence is unusual in rebel-held cities.

A Russian warship opens fire during a naval exercise in the Black Sea Credit: Russian Defence Ministry Press Service via AP

Separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions that form Ukraine’s industrial heartland known as the Donbas announced they were evacuating civilians to Russia.

Mr Pushilin, the head of the Donetsk rebel government, said women, children and the elderly would go first, and that Russia has prepared facilities for them.

He alleged in a video statement that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was going to order an imminent offensive in the area.

However, US authorities have alleged that the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign could include staged, pre-recorded videos.

People waiting to be evacuated to Russia amid crisis in Donetsk Credit: AP

Authorities began moving children from an orphanage in Donetsk, and other residents boarded buses for Russia. Long lines formed at gas stations as more people prepared to leave on their own.

Mr Putin has ordered the government to offer a payment of 10,000 rubles (about £95) to each evacuee, equivalent to about half of an average monthly salary in the war-ravaged Donbas region.

By Saturday morning, more than 6,600 residents of the rebel-controlled areas were evacuated to Russia, according to separatist officials, who have announced plans to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people.

The explosions and the announced evacuations were in line with the West's warnings of so-called false flag attacks that Russia could use to justify an invasion.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the threat to global security is “more complex and probably higher” than during the Cold War.

He told a security conference in Munich that a small mistake or miscommunication between major powers could have catastrophic consequences.

Russia announced this week that it was pulling back forces from vast military exercises, but US officials said they saw no sign of a pullback and instead observed more troops moving toward the border with Ukraine.

Asked about Western warnings of a possible Russian invasion on Wednesday that did not materialise, Mr Putin said: “There are so many false claims, and constantly reacting to them is more trouble than it’s worth.

“We are doing what we consider necessary and will keep doing so. We have clear and precise goals conforming to national interests.”