Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine ordered a full military mobilization Saturday amid a spike of violence in the war-torn region and fears in the West that Russia might use the strife as a pretext for an invasion.
Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russia separatist government in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, released a statement announcing a full troop mobilization. A similar announcement quickly followed from his counterpart in the Luhansk region.
Pushilin cited an “immediate threat of aggression” from Ukrainian forces, accusations that Ukrainian officials vehemently denied earlier.
“I appeal to all the men in the republic who can hold weapons to defend their families, their children, wives, mothers,” Pushilin said. ”Together we will achieve the coveted victory that we all need.”
By Saturday morning, the separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which form Ukraine’s industrial heartland known as the Donbas, said that thousands of residents of the rebel-controlled areas had been evacuated to Russia.
More than 6,600 people had been evacuated from Donetsk, and some 25,000 people have left Luhansk, with 10,000 preparing to leave, separatist officials said. The rebels began evacuating civilians to Russia on Friday with an announcement that appeared to be part of their and Moscow’s efforts to paint Ukraine as the aggressor.
With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops now posted around Ukraine’s borders, the long-simmering separatist conflict could provide the spark for a broader attack.
Ukraine’s military said shelling killed a soldier Saturday in the government-held part of the Donetsk region and that separatist forces were placing artillery in residential areas to try and provoke a response.
Meanwhile, Russia conducted massive nuclear drills on Saturday. The Kremlin said Putin, who pledged to protect Russia’s national interests against what it sees as encroaching Western threats, was watching the drills together with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko from the situation room in the Kremlin.
Notably, the planned exercise involves the Crimea-based Black Sea Fleet. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula after seizing it from Ukraine in 2014. .
Underscoring the West’s concerns of an imminent invasion, a U.S. defense official said an estimated 40% to 50% of the ground forces deployed in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border have moved into attack positions closer to the border.
The shift has been underway for about a week, other officials have said, and does not necessarily mean Putin has decided to begin an invasion.
The separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting for almost eight years. But the violence along the line of contact separating the two sides, including a humanitarian convoy hit by shelling, has risen in recent days. A car bombing Friday in the city of Donetsk also sharpened the sense of alarm.