(UPDATE 1: Re-leads, alters headline, adds information throughout, quotes)
Moscow/Kiev, Feb 18 (EFE).- Separatist forces in control of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine on Friday announced the mass evacuation of civilians to Russia citing the threat of a Ukrainian military operation in the Donbas region, which Kiev has flatly denied as misinformation.
It comes as the United States representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that Russia had amassed between 169,000 to 190,000 troops along Ukraine’s border, up from an estimated 100,000 at the end of January.
Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, claimed that Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy would soon order the national army to launch an offensive against the DPR and the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, Russia’s TASS news agency reported.
The developments from the Russian-backed separatists coincided with growing warnings from the West that Russia was plotting a so-called false flag operation to justify an invasion of Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin dispatched his emergency situations minister to the bordering Rostov-on-Don region to monitor the operation and receive the displaced civilians, according to the Interfax news outlet.
Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba rubbished the claims, as well as allegations from the DPR that separatists had foiled a sabotage plot.
“We categorically refute Russian disinformation reports on Ukraine’s alleged offensive operations or acts of sabotage in chemical production facilities,” he tweeted.
“Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas. We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only.”
Pro-Russian separatists on Friday again denounced alleged attacks by the Ukrainian Armed Forces on the frontline, while Kiev stressed that on Thursday alone the separatists carried out at least 60 attacks, 43 of which were with weapons banned by the Minsk peace agreements.
PUTIN WEIGHS IN
Putin on Friday said the situation in the Donbas had worsened.
Speaking at a press conference with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko ahead of military drills slated for Saturday, Putin urged Kiev authorities to sit down and negotiate with pro-Russian separatists, who wrested control of swathes of eastern Ukraine following the pro-European revolution in 2014.
“The sooner this happens, the better,” he added.
Putin will on Saturday oversee ballistic and cruise missile exercises in Belarus, which also borders Ukraine, amid the sky-high tensions between Moscow and western powers.
In his daily press briefing earlier on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the maneuvers need not cause concern in the West, as they are “quite regular” training and different countries had been notified through “various channels.”
The drills will coincide with the ongoing Russian-Belarusian exercises being held in Belarus from February 10-20 near the Ukrainian border.
The prospect of further military exercises in Ukraine’s vicinity is likely to raise alarm among western powers, with US president Joe Biden warning an invasion could come in the next “several days.”
But in a speech to his country’s parliament on Friday, Ukrainian defense minister Oleksii Reznikov insisted that the likelihood of a full-scale Russian invasion was low.
“We do not minimize the threat in any way. But we still estimate low the probability of a major escalation (…), Reznikov told in the Verkhovna Rada.