Fresh eastern Ukraine shelling stokes Russian invasion fears

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Fresh eastern Ukraine shelling stokes Russian invasion fears

Ukraine accused Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east of more cease-fire violations on Friday, as the United States and its allies warned Moscow might use a spike in shelling there as a pretext for an invasion.

With the escalation in eastern Ukraine stoking fresh global alarm and further raising tensions between the Kremlin and the West, Moscow announced large-scale drills involving its nuclear forces starting Saturday.

The Russian military announced that President Vladimir Putin will oversee the sweeping exercise, which will involve multiple practice missile launches and offer a timely reminder of the country’s nuclear might.

As hopes for a diplomatic solution to the crisis faded, the State Department said late Thursday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Europe next week — provided Russia does not attack its neighbor beforehand.

In an address to the United Nations Thursday, Blinken laid out Washington’s detailed fears about what Russian President Vladimir Putin might be planning, echoing President Joe Biden’s dire assessment of the Russian threat.

Biden will host a call Friday with “transatlantic leaders” to discuss “Russia’s buildup of military troops on the border of Ukraine and our continued efforts to pursue deterrence and diplomacy,” a White House official said.

Ukrainian government troops have been fighting the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014 — when Moscow annexed Crimea and threw its weight behind the breakaway forces — in a simmering conflict that’s claimed some 14,000 lives.

It has been closely watched over fears it could become a source of potential escalation in the broader crisis. And this week, with Russia massing as many as 150,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders and the West saying they have seen no sign of a claimed pullback, there has been an uptick in the violence.

Ukraine’s ministry of defense said that by 9 am local time Friday (2 am ET), its forces had recorded 20 cease-fire violations, including artillery, mortar and machine gun fire.

Ukraine said the Moscow-backed separatists were “placing its artillery systems near residential buildings” in the hope Kyiv’s forces would return fire. A day earlier Kyiv said the Russian-backed separatists were responsible for “a big provocation” after the shelling of a kindergarten in territory controlled by the Ukrainian government.

“We are constantly faced with provocations, shelling, cyberattacks, dangerous maneuvers of aviation, disabling of mobile communications,” Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told the country’s parliament Friday.

“Our task is not to do what the Russian Federation pushes us to do — to fight back, but to keep our head cool. Because provocations will not stop.”

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