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Russian-backed separatists conduct military drills, Ukraine warns

KYIV, Ukraine – Ukraine’s military warned on Friday that the Russian-backed separatist army in the east of the country had been put on high alert, completing a near encirclement of Ukraine by forces now ready to attack. military action, even as the Biden administration has warned that a Russian invasion could be imminent.

The drills tested the separatists’ readiness for live-fire operations, practicing “driving artillery, tanks and armored vehicles” in field exercises, according to the Ukrainian statement. Some units of the force, estimated at 30,000 strong, were placed on the highest alert level, the Ukrainians said, and senior Russian military officers were observing the activity.

The warning coincided with an even more serious statement from Washington, where officials said Russia had advanced its timetable and could launch an invasion of Ukraine within days, even before the Olympics were over.

“Russia could very quickly choose to launch major military action against Ukraine,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said. But officials also warned they could not yet know exactly when, or even if, Mr Putin might decide to invade.

Adding to the sense of foreboding, many countries – including the United States, Britain and even Russia – issued urgent warnings to their citizens to leave Ukraine immediately. President Biden has said that in the event of war, American troops could not help with an evacuation. Many more began to evacuate embassy personnel.

Kyiv’s assessment was the latest evidence of a shift by officials there toward more alarming comments about the military risk facing the country. This follows weeks of efforts to minimize the threat of an invasion, seeking to calm the public, limit the economic fallout and avoid anything that could be seen as a provocation by Moscow.

Ukraine began its own nationwide military exercises this week to coincide with joint Russian and Belarusian drills in northern Ukraine, in Belarus, just 140 miles from Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.

These joint exercises involved a flurry of military activity on Friday, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement. The troops trained to evacuate the wounded from the battlefield, to maneuver with armored vehicles and to carry out reconnaissance activities. Russian Air Force planes fired at an aerial target.

To the south, the Russian Navy announced on Thursday the closure of large swaths of the Black Sea for live-fire exercises by its fleet which will effectively block Ukrainian ports, including the port of Odessa. The naval exercises were to begin on Sunday and last six days.

Russia has massed armored vehicles and troops near its borders in northeast Ukraine and south on the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014, as well as in Belarus.

On Friday, President Biden had a phone call with 10 other transatlantic leaders “to discuss our shared concerns about Russia’s continued buildup of military forces around Ukraine and continued coordination on diplomacy and deterrence. “, the White House said in a statement.

Among those expected to join Biden were European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, President Emmanuel Macron of France, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Great Britain. .

A wide range of diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis have yielded little fruit so far, amid growing signs on Friday that the situation is deteriorating.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said “we are not seeing a de-escalation” from Russia despite multiple diplomatic overtures. US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said during a visit to Australia that “we continue to see very disturbing signs of Russian escalation, including the arrival of new forces on the Ukrainian border.”

A meeting in Moscow on Friday between British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace and his Russian counterpart Sergei K. Shoigu was cordial but led to a grim assessment of Russia-Western relations by Mr. Shoigu.

After Mr Wallace laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, acknowledging Russia’s losses in World War II, Mr Shoigu nodded to the alliance of countries in that war, but added: “Unfortunately, the level of our cooperation is narrow. zero and is about to cross the zero meridian and reach negatives.

In news conferences that ran through Friday morning in Berlin, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators said a channel for talks backed by French President Emmanuel Macron had brought no breakthrough.

Negotiations focused on a settlement agreement for the eastern Ukraine war, but were seen as a possible route to easing wider tensions over the Russian buildup. It was the second effort this year by foreign policy advisers to the French, German, Russian and Ukrainian governments.

“It would be nice if in the second meeting we could agree on something,” said Andriy Yermak, Ukraine’s chief negotiator. After nine hours of talks, the negotiators could not agree on a joint declaration. “It happened the way it did today,” Mr Yermak said.

Russian negotiator Dmitry Kozak offered an even starker assessment. He said the Ukrainian government had not changed its long-standing positions in the seven-year-long conflict settlement talks in eastern Ukraine.

Separate talks in Moscow on Thursday between British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey L. Lavrov also came to nothing, with Lavrov likening them to “the conversation of a mute person with a deaf person”.

Ms Truss had said one of the purposes of the visit was to convey warnings to Russian officials about the severity of Western economic sanctions and other repercussions if they used military force in Ukraine. Lavrov countered by reiterating Russia’s position that it has no intention of invading Ukraine and that its army is only conducting exercises.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has offered to mediate, a proposal accepted by Ukraine but refused by Russia. Next week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is due to travel to Kyiv and Moscow. And Russian officials have said they will respond in writing to proposals for security talks offered by the United States and NATO.

Russia has made a series of demands of the West, including reducing NATO’s military presence in Eastern Europe to 1990s levels and ensuring Ukraine could never join NATO . The United States called these demands “non-starters” and instead offered a series of proposals aimed at arms control.