Men gather at a military mobilization point opened in a school in Donetsk Men gather at a military mobilization point opened in a school in Donetsk  (ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO)

Separatists announce mobilization in Ukraine

Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine order a total military mobilization amid mounting violence in the war-torn region. It comes amid fears in the West that Russia might use the strife as a pretext for a full-scale invasion.

By Stefan J. Bos

Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russia separatist government in Ukraine's Donetsk region, announced a total troop mobilization Saturday, following a similar statement from his counterpart in the Luhansk region.

Pushilin cited an "immediate threat of aggression" from Ukrainian forces, which Ukrainian officials denied earlier. He said Saturday that he appeals to all the men in the republic who can hold weapons to defend their families, children, wives, mothers. In his words, "Together we will achieve the coveted victory that we all need."

There has been massive shelling in the region, killing a Ukrainian soldier Saturday, the first such death reported in weeks.

Listen to Stefan Bos' report

Earlier, a humanitarian convoy of the United Nations refugee agency and a kindergarten were among other targets reportedly hit. However, there were no reports of casualties.

A U.S. security official said there is concern that Russia will use an incident in the east to invade and that there are already Russian paramilitary forces in the area.

While the mobilization was ongoing, Russian President Vladimir Putin presided over test launches of three ballistic and cruise missiles on Saturday.

Nuclear deterrence

Moscow described it as "nuclear deterrence exercises," a clear warning to the West as Europe experiences its perceived biggest security crisis in years.

Putin watched the display from a Kremlin command center, accompanied by President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, whose government considers allowing Russia to base some of its nuclear arsenal on its territory.

The exercise underscored broader concerns about Russian military activities. The U.S. said as many as 190,000 Russian forces are in and near Ukraine. "We assess that Russia probably has massed between 169,000-190,000 personnel in and near Ukraine. As compared with about 100,000 on Jan. 30," said a statement by the U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, calling it "the most significant military mobilization in Europe since the Second World War."

The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told Germany Munich Security Conference he was concerned about escalating tensions. “With the concentration of Russian forces, I am deeply concerned about heightened tensions and a military conflict in Europe. I still think it will not happen. But if it did, it would be catastrophic," he said.

Despite the threat of war, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine chose not to cancel his scheduled trip out of the country Saturday to attend the security conference in Munich.

U.S. President Biden, asked whether it would be wise for Zelensky to leave, said that it was a judgment for the Ukrainian leader to make and added he had spoken with him often.

Concerns remain

Some observers in Washington expressed concerns that he's leaving the country at this critical moment could provide an opening for Moscow, which the West believes is intent on toppling Zelensky's government.

But speaking at the conference, the mayor of Ukraine's capital Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, said his nation needed help. "We are ready to fight," the former professional boxer said. “We are ready to defend our families, our state, our cities, and our citizens. But we need support," he told the gathering.

His comments were directed at Germany, which has so far refused to deliver military aid to Ukraine. Still, Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock asks for understanding, citing her nation's history. "Our responsibility after the Second World War was never from Germany there will be war, and never there will be genocide," she stressed.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken still hopes diplomacy will prevent a full-scale invasion. "Differences have to be resolved through dialogue and through diplomacy. But we are deeply concerned that is not the path that Russia has embarked on."

Russia says it has no intention to invade Ukraine despite annexing its Crimea peninsula in 2014 and supporting pro-Russian separatists in the east. However, Moscow wants security guarantees such as preventing Ukraine from joining the NATO military alliance, demands the West says are unacceptable.

20 February 2022, 09:39