Shelling, Mortar Fire Intensify in Ukraine’s Donbas as War Clouds Gather

Shelling and mortar fire picked up tempo overnight Saturday in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, with the heavy bombardment spurring fears a major military clash is  in the offing.

The head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk republic Saturday issued a mobilization order for able-bodied males to present themselves to “military commissars” to sign up with local militias. Men aged between 18 and 55 are also being barred from leaving the pro-Russian self-styled republic on the eastern edge of Ukraine.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Saturday reported more violations of an often-broken ceasefire agreed to in 2015 in the Donbas than a previous high on Feb. 12.

Parts of the Donbas, which also includes the self-proclaimed republic of Luhansk, have been under de facto Russian occupation for the past eight years.

The OSCE reported more violations around Luhansk than Donetsk during the past two days, but even so, longtime observers say the shelling in and around Donetsk is the most intense they have seen in years.

On Friday the pro-Moscow separatist leaders, who are seen by Ukraine as puppets of the Kremlin, ordered a mass evacuation of civilians in posted videos, saying the Ukrainian army was planning an attack — an accusation vehemently denied by Kyiv.

According to the metadata of the videos, analyzed by experts, the broadcasts were prerecorded two days before, suggesting the evacuation, renewed shelling and other events, including an inexplicable car bombing, in Donbas are being orchestrated by the Kremlin, say Ukrainian officials, Western leaders and independent observers.

They accuse Moscow of building up a pretext for launching an offensive on Ukraine. Kremlin officials deny this, with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov and other Russian diplomats accusing Western leaders of “hysteria” and “alarmism.” Saturday, Russian authorities claimed a shell, allegedly fired by Ukraine, exploded on Russian territory near a house in the village of Mityakinskaya in the southern Rostov region.

Western intelligence officials say the evacuation and mobilization orders and intensifying artillery and mortar fire, which they blame on the Russian separatists, are consistent with warnings that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made at a midweek presentation to the United Nations Security Council, where he accused Moscow of preparing “false flag” operations that could be blamed on Kyiv but are in fact ordered by the Kremlin and conducted by its own forces or proxies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has maintained a drumbeat of accusations against Ukraine, accusing it of genocide against ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and backing of armed proxies the same year in the Donbas was justified by the Kremlin on the grounds that it had to protect ethnic Russians. It was the same reason given for invading Georgia in 2008.

A Kremlin critic, Bill Browder, a British-American financier who was once based in Moscow, noted Friday that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tweeted word-for-word this week exactly the same remark he made on the eve of the Georgia invasion blaming the Kremlin’s foes for “provocative actions that have only intensified in the last day.”

However, independent analysts and military strategists are still split on whether what they describe as staged events in the Donbas are a prelude to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, something U.S. President Joe Biden warned about Friday, saying he is now convinced that Putin has decided to invade Ukraine in coming days and that Russian forces will launch an assault on the capital, Kyiv.

“As of this moment, I’m convinced he’s made the decision. We have reason to believe that,” Biden told reporters in Washington. His comments marked the first time the United States has said categorically Putin has made up his mind to invade.

Analyst and longtime Kremlin-watcher Dmitri Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center, a think tank, suspects the Kremlin is creating “strategic tension” with its actions in the Donbas along with planned nuclear-force drills Saturday and Sunday in Belarus, a Russian ally.

“Moscow’s objective appears to be coercing Ukraine into talking directly with Donetsk and Luhansk,” he tweeted Saturday, with the goal of intimidating Kyiv into accepting a 7-year-old peace deal, the Minsk Accord, which is highly unpopular in Ukraine and was signed when the Ukrainian army was suffering severe setbacks on the battlefield in Donbas.

Military strategist Edward Luttwak has adjusted his thoughts on the unfolding and dizzying events. Luttwak has been skeptical for weeks that the Kremlin is planning a deeper re-invasion of Ukraine, maintaining Russia didn’t have sufficient forces in place to carry out and sustain such a massive armed endeavor.

But with Western estimates of the Russian forces now deployed on three sides of Ukraine rising from 100,000 to 130,000 in January to 190,000 now, Luttwak tweeted Saturday: “Russia troops could reach 200K enough to control central Kyiv.” He noted, though, that that would mean leaving much of Ukraine in the hands of the decapitated Ukrainian regular forces and insurgents “willing to shoot at vulnerable Russians.”

However, he, too, suggests Putin likely favors using threats to subjugate Ukraine rather than invading.

With the crisis worsening rapidly, Britain Friday ordered its ambassador and the few remaining British diplomats in Kyiv to join the bulk of the staff who were relocated earlier in the month to Lviv in western Ukraine.   

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