The Russian military has announced massive drills of its strategic forces, as the US estimated the build up of troops was the “most significant military mobilisation” in Europe since WW2.
Russia now has some 190,000 troops stationed around Ukraine amid growing fears that Moscow might be preparing to invade its neighbour.
President Vladimir Putin is expected to personally oversee a military exercise on Saturday which will involve multiple practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.
The Defence Ministry said it planned the manoeuvres some time ago to check the readiness of Russia’s military command and personnel, as well as the reliability of its nuclear and conventional weapons.
The war games follow US President Joe Biden’s warning on Thursday that Russia could invade Ukraine within days.
Russia said it has started drawing down troops near Ukraine this week, but the US said it was actually ramping up to between 169,000 and 190,000 troops, from 100,000 at the end of January.
“This is the most significant military mobilisation in Europe since the Second World War,” US ambassador Michael Carpenter told a meeting at the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Western fears focus the fact about 60 per cent of Russia’s overall ground forces are concentrated near Ukraine’s borders. The Kremlin insists it has no plans to invade.
But Moscow has demanded that the US and its allies keep Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations out of NATO, not deploy weapons in Ukraine and pull back NATO forces from Eastern Europe.
Washington and its allies bluntly rejected the Russian demands, and Moscow threatened to take unspecified “military-technical measures” if the West continued to stonewall.
Russia holds massive drills of its strategic nuclear forces on an annual basis, but the manoeuvres planned for Saturday pointedly involve the Black Sea Fleet. The fleet is based on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
West says Russia hurtling towards war
Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to evacuate their breakaway region’s residents to Russia, a stunning turn in the conflict.
Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said Russia had agreed to provide accommodation for those who leave.
Women, children and the elderly should be evacuated first.
There was no immediate comment from Russian officials or from Kyiv.
Millions of civilians are believed to live in the two rebel-held regions of eastern Ukraine; most are Russian speakers and many have already been granted Russian citizenship.
The eastern Ukraine conflict zone saw the most intense artillery bombardment for years on Friday, with the Kyiv government and the separatists trading blame.
Western countries have said they think the shelling, which began on Thursday and intensified in its second day, is part of a pretext to invade.
A diplomatic source with years of direct experience of the conflict described shelling in eastern Ukraine as the most intense since major combat there ended with a 2015 ceasefire.
Close to 600 explosions were recorded on Friday morning, 100 more than on Thursday, some involving 152 mm and 122 mm artillery and large mortars, the source said. At least four rounds had been fired from tanks.
“They are shooting — everyone and everything,” said the source. “There’s been nothing like this since 2014-15.”
Other officials have disputed that characterisation, noting that there had been periods of deadly fighting during the ceasefire, and that there were no reports so far of deaths at the frontline this week.