Russia holds nuclear drills, US says Russian forces ‘ready to strike’ Ukraine

G7 foreign ministers said they had seen no evidence that Russia was reducing military activity near Ukraine’s borders and remained “gravely concerned” about the situation.

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DONETSK — Russia’s strategic nuclear forces held exercises Saturday overseen by President Vladimir Putin, and Washington accused Russian troops massed near the Ukrainian border of advancing and being “ready to strike.”

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Amid growing fears of war in the West, foreign ministers from the wealthy G7 group of nations say they have seen no evidence that Russia is reducing military activity near Ukraine’s borders and remained “gravely concerned” about the situation.

After Kiev and Moscow swapped accusations over new bombings near the border, France and Germany urged all or some of their citizens in Ukraine to leave and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that Russian forces were beginning to “uncoil and close” on the border.

“We hope he (Putin) will step back from the brink of the conflict,” Austin told a news conference in Lithuania, saying an invasion of Ukraine was not inevitable.

Russia has ordered the military buildup while demanding that NATO prevent Ukraine from joining the alliance, but says Western predictions that it plans to invade Ukraine are wrong and dangerous. Moscow says it is backing down now, but Washington and its allies say the buildup is intensifying.

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Washington and NATO say Moscow’s main demands are futile, but in Ukraine fears are growing over Putin’s plans and the West’s ability to prevent a Russian invasion.

Expressing his frustration at a security conference in Munich, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the global security architecture was “almost broken”. He urged the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and Turkey to meet to work out new security guarantees for his country.

“The rules the world agreed to decades ago no longer work. They do not track new threats. Not effective in overcoming them. It’s cough syrup when you need a coronavirus vaccine,” he said.

HYPERSONIC AND CRUISE MISSILE

The Kremlin said Russia had successfully tested hypersonic and cruise missiles at sea during military exercises of strategic nuclear forces.

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Putin observed the drills on screens with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko from what the Kremlin called a “situation center”.

US President Joe Biden said on Friday he believed Putin would invade in the coming days and Austin said the drills were fueling concern around the world.

The G7 foreign ministers called on Russia “to choose the path of diplomacy, defuse tensions, substantially withdraw military forces from near Ukraine’s borders and fully respect international commitments”.

“As a first step, we expect Russia to implement the announced reduction of its military activities along Ukraine’s borders. We have seen no evidence of this reduction,” they said in a statement.

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The nuclear exercises follow exercises by the Russian armed forces over the past four months that have included a buildup of troops – estimated by the West at 150,000 or more – in the north, east and south of the Ukraine.

New helicopters and a battle group deployment of tanks, armored personnel carriers and support equipment have been deployed in Russia near the border, according to US company Maxar Technologies, which is following the developments with images satellites.

Moscow-based analysts said Saturday’s drills were meant to send a message to take Russia’s demands for NATO security guarantees seriously.

“Ignoring Russia’s legitimate rights in this area harms stability not only on the European continent, but also in the world,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the French Foreign Minister by telephone.

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BONDAGE ALLEGATIONS

Russian-backed rebels seized parts of eastern Ukraine and Russia annexed Crimea to Ukraine in 2014 after protests toppled the pro-Russian Ukrainian leader. Kyiv says more than 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the east.

France on Saturday urged its citizens to leave the regions of Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk without delay and suggested that all French citizens in Ukraine leave if they do not have urgent business there. Germany has told its nationals to leave now.

Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine have declared full military mobilization after ordering women and children to evacuate to Russia, citing the threat of an imminent attack by Ukrainian forces, which Kiev has denied.

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Kiev and Western leaders say the mobilization, evacuation and increased shelling across the ceasefire line this week is part of a Russian plan to create a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine .

Russia’s FSB security service said two shells fell on Russian territory near the border, Russian news agency Tass reported. One of them hit a building in the Rostov region but no one was hurt, he added.

Ukraine’s military accused Russia of faking photos of shells to make it look like they were Ukrainian, and said mercenaries had arrived in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine to stage provocations in collaboration with the Russian special services.

Ukraine’s foreign minister has demanded an independent international investigation into the alleged incidents and the military said two soldiers were killed in shelling by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Explosions were heard in the northern separatist-controlled city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine as people boarded buses to leave, a Reuters witness said.

“It’s really scary. I took everything I could carry,” said Tatyana, 30, who was boarding a bus with her 4-year-old daughter.

Russian news agencies said 10,000 evacuees had arrived in Russia so far. Separatist authorities say they aim to evacuate 700,000 people.

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