President Joe Biden will convene a meeting of the National Security Council on the escalating crisis in Ukraine Sunday, amid a spike in violence that has heightened fears that Russia is planning to invade.
Biden’s national security team, “reaffirmed that Russia could launch an attack against Ukraine at any time,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement announcing the meeting Saturday.
The meeting will take a place after monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe recorded a significant rise in cease-fire violations in eastern Ukraine on Saturday, where the Moscow-supported separatists have been fighting government forces since 2014 despite a series of shaky cease fires.
It said late Saturday that 975 cease-fire violations were recorded in the Luhansk region Friday and 591 in Donetsk region. As a policy the OSCE does not tend to attribute blame, but those numbers are significantly higher than those it reported earlier this week.
Officials in the separatist territories claimed Ukrainian forces launched several artillery attacks over the past days, and that two civilians were killed in an unsuccessful assault on a village under their control early Sunday.
A Ukrainian official insisted the country’s forces were not responsible as his country’s troops had been “instructed to refrain from any active action, realizing that the Russians are now looking for any excuse to invade.”
The Ukrainian army also said a soldier was injured as the result of further cease-fire violations by the separatists.
Ukraine has repeatedly denied it would launch an offensive on the separatist-held region and has said it wants a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.
The US and Western officials have also warned the area could be used by the Kremlin to stage a “false flag” operation to create an excuse for a wider invasion and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Saturday that accusations about his forces shelling in the region were “pure lies.”
After separatists leaders called for citizens to evacuate Friday warning of a possible attack by Kyiv, more than 40,000 people crossed the border into Russia, the country’s state-run Tass news agency reported Sunday.
With tensions rising in eastern Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that “any spark, any unplanned incident or any minor planned provocation can lead to irreparable consequences” in an interview with the country’s state-run “Russia 1” TV Channel Sunday.
To Ukraine’s north in Belarus, where its forces have been conducting massive military drills with the Russian military, the country’s defense ministry said in a statement that the maneuvers had finished, but “readiness checks” would continue because of the rising tensions.
The US and its allies had previously raised concerns that the drills could provide cover for an invasion by Moscow in what’s quickly becoming Europe’s gravest security crisis since the Cold War.
Russia has insisted that the drills are purely defensive in nature and its troops, which NATO estimates number at around 30,000, will return to their stations once the exercises are finished.
Michael Carpenter, US Ambassador to the OSCE, tweeted Sunday that none of Belarus’ claims regarding the “unprecedented Russian military maneuvers on its territory” had been “credible,” and called the justification for continuing them “flimsy.”
Moscow, despite a massing tens of thousands of troops around Ukraine’s northern, eastern and southern borders, has repeatedly denied that it plans to invade Ukraine.
President Zelenskyy, meanwhile, asked his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, to meet him on Saturday in a speech at a security conference in the German city of Munich.
“I don’t know what the president of the Russian Federation wants, so I am proposing a meeting,” he told delegates at the event which was attended by Vice President Kamala Harris and other Western leaders.
The Kremlin has not responded.
Associated Press contributed.