Shelling intensifies in eastern Ukraine amid concern Russia's creating a pretext for an invasion
Kyiv — Ukrainian forces and the pro-Russian separatists they're fighting in the country's east reported a second day of increased shelling on Friday, as the leaders of the rebels' self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics accused the Ukrainian government of planning an imminent attack. The rebel administrations in the two breakaway regions announced plans to evacuate thousands of civilians into neighboring Russia.
Western leaders say an escalation in the fighting in Ukraine's Donbas region — which has simmered for almost eight years — could be part of Russian efforts to create a "false-flag" pretext to invade.
"Ukraine is not your enemy, but those who want to defend you against Ukraine are. Do not heed rumours about some offensive operation," Ukraine's defense minister said in a speech Friday. "We have no intentions to conduct any force actions towards the ORDLO (Donbas) or the Crimea. At all. We will move by the political and diplomatic way. Because there are our citizens and we will not put them in danger."
The Ukrainian government's reassurance didn't appear to be calming nerves in the rebel-held region, however, with social media photos purporting to show people lining up to take money out of banks.
Russian officials seemed to know little about the evacuation plans. Asked if Russia was ready to accept thousands of refugees from Donbas, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday: "I don't know with whom there were contacts, I don't have information."
The reports came as America's defense chief said the United States had still seen no drawdown of the Russian forces massed around Ukraine's borders. The U.S. envoy to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which was meeting in Germany on Friday, said the Russian deployment around Ukraine's borders had actually swelled to between 169,000 and 190,000 troops — the biggest military buildup in Europe since World War II.
"Although Russia has announced it is moving its forces back to garrison, we have yet to see that. In fact, we see more forces moving into that region, that border region," U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said during a press conference alongside his Polish counterpart on Friday. "We also see them going through, continuing to prepare, by doing things you'd expect elements — military elements — to do as they were preparing to launch an attack."
But Russia continued issuing new claims that some of its soldiers and weapons were returning to their bases after planned military exercises, even as the Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin would personally oversee massive naval drills on Saturday involving the country's nuclear forces.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a stark assessment of the situation to the U.N. Security Council, saying Washington believed Russia was planning a full-scale attack on Ukraine. He echoed President Joe Biden's warning that the U.S. believes Russia is trying to manufacture an excuse for war.
"We have reason to believe they are engaged in a false-flag operation to have an excuse to go in," Mr. Biden said.
The president is scheduled to host a call on Friday with the leaders of NATO, the European Union, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Romania.
Blinken, meanwhile, was in Munich with Vice President Kamala Harris, but his spokesman announced overnight that he is now scheduled to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov "late next week," unless Russia invades.
CBS News correspondent Christina Ruffini, at the OSCE meeting, said Harris was slated to meet during the conference with Ukraine's President Volodymr Zelensky about the Russian buildup along his country's borders.
Ruffini said it was a risky move for Zelensky to leave his country with more than half of Russia's armed forces moving into battle positions around its borders, but he was keen to ensure that other world leaders weren't making decisions that directly affect him in Munich without him in the room.
Harris was not meeting with any Russian officials over the several days of the OSCE conference, Ruffini noted, because the Russian delegation opted not to come — knowing they would have been at the center of the wrong kind of attention.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made an urgent plea for deescalation to the gathered leaders at the Munich security conference, CBS News' Pamela Falk reported.
"During much of the Cold War, there were mechanisms that enabled the protagonists to calculate risks and use back-channels to prevent crises," Guterres said. Now, "miscommunication or miscalculation can make a minor incident between powers escalate out of control, causing incalculable harm."
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