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Shelling escalates in Ukraine, as thousands flee fearing attack


Ukrainian soldier in Krymske where mortar attacks from Russian-backed separatists fell through the night, Feb. 19, 2022.

By Steven Erlanger


Artillery fire escalated sharply in eastern Ukraine Saturday, and thousands of residents fled the region in chaotic evacuations — two developments rife with opportunities for what the United States has warned could be a pretext for a Russian invasion.


Russia-backed separatists, who have been fighting the Ukrainian government for years, have asserted, without evidence, that Ukraine was planning a large-scale attack on territory they control.


Western leaders have derided the notion that Ukraine would launch an attack while surrounded by Russian forces, and Ukrainian officials dismissed the claim as “a cynical Russian lie.”


But separatist leaders on Saturday urged women and children to evacuate and able-bodied men to prepare to fight. The ginned-up panic was already having real effects, with refugees frantically boarding buses to Russia and refugee tent camps popping up across the Russian border.


At the same time, the firing of mortars, artillery and rocket-propelled grenades by separatist rebels along the front line roughly doubled the level of the previous two days, the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs said. Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and five wounded, the military said.


Ukrainian officials said the shelling came exclusively from the separatists, who are seen as a proxy for Russia.


New York Times reporters at the scene witnessed shelling from separatists and saw no return fire from the Ukrainian forces, although residents in the separatist regions said there was shelling from both sides.


“I have a small baby,” said Nadya Lapygina, who said her town in the breakaway region of Luhansk was hit by artillery and mortar fire. “You have no idea how scary it is to hide him from the shelling.”


In a pointed reminder of where this conflict could lead, Russia engaged in a dramatic display of military theater Saturday, test-firing ballistic and cruise missiles. President Vladimir Putin of Russia presided over tests of nuclear-capable missiles as part of what Russia insists are nothing more than exercises and not the precursor to an invasion.


Tensions between the United States and Russia have not been this high since the Cold War, and Russia’s nuclear drills appeared carefully timed to deter the West from direct military involvement in Ukraine.


Western leaders gathered in Munich issued repeated calls for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, despite President Joe Biden’s claim Friday that Putin had already decided to invade Ukraine.


The leaders displayed a remarkably united front in what Vice President Kamala Harris called “a defining moment” for European security and the defense of democratic values.

But in Ukraine, the fighting edged perilously closer to a tipping point. And there were alarming signs of what U.S. officials described as possible precursors to a pretext for a Russian invasion.


Intense artillery barrages targeted a pocket of government-controlled territory around the town of Svitlodarsk, a spot that has worried security analysts for weeks for its proximity to dangerous industrial infrastructure, including storage tanks for poisonous gas.


A stray shell from returning government fire risks hitting a chemical plant about 6 miles away in separatist-controlled territory. The plant, one of Europe’s largest fertilizer factories, has pressurized tanks and more than 12 miles of pipelines holding poisonous ammonia gas.


An explosion there could produce a toxic cloud that could serve as an excuse for a Russian invasion or, U.S. officials have warned, Russia could stage its own explosion there to justify intervention.


Another potential flashpoint in the area, a water network that supplies drinking water to several million people on both sides of the conflict, may have been damaged by shelling Saturday. Russia’s Interfax news agency cited a spokesperson for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic saying that shelling had struck a pumping station and the water supply was at risk.


A loss of water for residents in the Russian-backed areas would reinforce Russian assertions of dire conditions for civilians and would be a setback for Ukraine, which has tried to persuade residents that the government is not their enemy. A cutoff of that water supply amid fighting in 2014 hastened a flow of refugees from the city.


In what Western officials dismissed as a baseless provocation, Denis Pushilin, leader of one pro-Russia separatist region, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, called on all able-bodied men to be prepared to fight the coming Ukrainian assault.


“I appeal to all men of the republic who are able to hold weapons in their hands, to stand up for their families, their children, wives and mothers,” he wrote on social media.

The Kyiv government denied any plans for an attack, but the warnings prompted residents to flock to bus depots in eastern Ukraine.


On Friday, Putin ordered the government to pay $130 to every refugee, and the Russian region of Rostov, which has several crossing points with the separatist areas, declared a state of emergency.


By Saturday, several thousand people had fled the separatist regions of Ukraine and crossed into Russia.


As the separatists stirred upheaval in eastern Ukraine, the Russian missile tests, of three ballistic and cruise missiles, were also intended to send a different message, that a conflict could quickly escalate.


In Munich, Western leaders continued to insist that diplomacy was still possible while warning of serious consequences for Russia if it invaded.


Harris said in that case, the United States and its allies would target not only financial institutions and technology exports to Russia, but also “those who are complicit and those who aid and direct this unprovoked invasion.”


But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, who flew to Munich for a few hours despite U.S concerns that he not leave the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, impatiently pressed Western leaders to take stronger action now.


“What are you waiting for?” he asked. “We don’t need your sanctions after” the economy collapses and “parts of our country will be occupied.”

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