Western concerns about Moscow’s intentions over Ukraine are focused on two areas of simmering conflict in the east of the country, where cease-fire violations between pro-Russian and Ukrainian troops were reported.
NATO countries fear those areas could be a flashpoint in their tensest standoff with Russia since the Cold War, providing the Kremlin with a pretext to invade Ukraine.
The developments came a day after a repeated warning from US President Joe Biden that Russia could invade within days.
The United States upped its estimate of Russia’s troop strength for a possible Ukraine invasion to as many as 190,000. The new estimate includes pro-Russian separatists inside Ukraine, the Russian National Guard and Russian troops in Crimea, which were not counted in previous assessments.
Russia also plans to hold military exercises on Saturday, including multiple practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles in a display of military might.
The United States and its European partners are keeping on with their strategy of diplomacy and deterrence, offering to keep talking with the Kremlin while threatening heavy sanctions if an invasion happens. Biden was due to speak publicly about the crisis later Friday.
Here’s a look at what is happening where and why:
WHAT’S HAPPENING IN EASTERN UKRAINE?
In eastern Ukraine, where fighting since 2014 between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia rebels has killed some 14,000 people, separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions announced they are evacuating civilians to Russia as unrest escalates.
Metadata from two videos posted by the separatists announcing the evacuation show that the files were created two days ago, The Associated Press confirmed. US authorities have alleged that Kremlin plans included prerecorded videos as part of a disinformation campaign.
A group of international monitors in eastern Ukraine that is tasked with keeping the peace reported more than 500 explosions in the 24 hours ending Thursday midday. A car exploded outside the main government building in Donetsk, but there was no immediate word on casualties or what caused the blast.
Around the volatile line of contact, a UN Refugee Agency convoy came under rebel shelling, Ukraine’s military chief said, though no casualties were reported.
Rebel forces denied that claim and alleged that Ukraine was about to invade the region, which Kyiv denied.
The unrest in the area may be part of Moscow’s suspected playbook of portraying Ukraine as the aggressor, thereby giving Russia grounds to invade.
Putin sent his emergencies minister to the Rostov region bordering Ukraine to help organize the evacuation. He ordered the government to give 10,000 rubles (about $130) to each evacuee. That’s equivalent to about half the average monthly salary in the area.
WHAT’S NEW ABOUT THE CYBERATTACKS?
The White House is blaming Russia for recent cyberattacks targeting Ukraine’s defense ministry and major banks.
Anne Neuberger, the White House’s chief cyber official, said the attacks this week were of “limited impact” since Ukrainian officials were able to quickly get their systems back up and running, but it is possible that the Russians were laying the groundwork for more destructive ones.
WHAT’S GOING ON AT THE KREMLIN?
The Kremlin says Putin will watch drills involving Russia’s strategic nuclear forces from the situation room at the Russian Defense Ministry.
The Defense Ministry said Putin will personally oversee Saturday’s display of his country’s nuclear might. Notably, the planned exercise involves the Crimea-based Black Sea Fleet. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula after seizing it from Ukraine in 2014.
Meanwhile, NATO is beefing up its eastern regions.
The US has begun deploying 5,000 troops to Poland and Romania. The Biden administration announced Friday it has approved a $6 billion sale of 250 Abrams battle tanks and related equipment to Poland.
Britain is sending hundreds of soldiers to Poland and offering more warships and planes. It also is doubling the number of personnel in Estonia and sending tanks and armored fighting vehicles.
Germany, Norway and the Netherlands are sending additional troops to Lithuania. The Dutch government is also sending to Ukraine 100 sniper rifles, combat helmets and body armor, two mine detection robots and weapon-detection radar systems.
WHAT ARE THE DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS TO PREVENT WAR?
Biden spoke by phone on Friday afternoon with trans-Atlantic leaders before speaking publicly about the crisis.
The leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, the United Kingdom, the European Union and NATO were expected to join Biden on the call.
Biden made some grim warnings Thursday, saying Washington detected more Russian troops moving toward the border with Ukraine.
US Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were attending the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany. Moscow sent no delegates there.
Harris indicated the alliance’s approach to the crisis would continue.
“We remain, of course, open to and desirous of diplomacy, as it relates to the dialogue and the discussions we have had with Russia,” Harris said in Munich.
“But we are also committed, if Russia takes aggressive action, to ensure there will be severe consequences in terms of the sanctions we have discussed,” she said at a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock expressed regret that Russian leaders declined to attend the Munich conference.
“Particularly in the current, extremely threatening situation, it would have been important to also meet Russian representatives in Munich,” Baerbock said. Even tiny steps toward peace would be “better than a big step toward war,” she added.
Associated Press reporters around the United States and Europe contributed.
Follow Associated Press’s coverage of the tensions between Russia and Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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