Putin to oversee Russian nuclear drills

Polina Nikolskaya |

The United States says Russia has ramped up its force menacing Ukraine on the border.
The United States says Russia has ramped up its force menacing Ukraine on the border.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is set to oversee exercises by strategic nuclear missile forces as Western leaders gather in Munich, fearful he could order troops massed on Ukraine’s border to invade at any time.

Russian-backed separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine declared a full military mobilisation, a day after ordering women and children to evacuate to Russia, citing the threat of an imminent attack by Ukrainian forces. 

Kyiv flatly denied the accusation and Washington said it was part of Russia’s plan to create a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine.

Multiple explosions could be heard on Saturday morning in the north of the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, a Reuters witness said. 

The origin was not immediately clear. Ukraine said earlier that one of its soldiers had been killed.

Russia ordered the military build-up while demanding NATO stop Kyiv ever joining the alliance but says predictions it is planning to invade Ukraine are wrong and dangerous. 

It says it is now pulling back while Washington and allies insist the build-up is continuing in one of the worst crises since the Cold War.

US President Joe Biden, who has given regular warnings of an impending invasion, said on Friday he now believes the capital Kyiv would be targeted by Russia but that he does not think Putin is even remotely contemplating using nuclear weapons.

“We have reason to believe the Russian forces are planning to and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week, in the coming days,” Biden told reporters at the White House.

“As of this moment, I am convinced that he has made the decision.”

Putin will oversee exercises by Russia’s nuclear forces on Saturday involving the launch of ballistic and cruise missiles, the defence ministry said. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the exercises were part of a regular training process and Putin was likely to take part from a “situation centre”.

Analysts said it was a show of strength. Russia has released footage to show it is withdrawing troops from the border but the United States says there has been a ramp-up to between 169,000-190,000 troops, from 100,000 at the end of January.

New helicopters and a battle group deployment of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and support equipment have deployed in Russia, near the border, according to US-based Maxar Technologies, which tracks developments with satellite imagery.

The Kremlin also has tens of thousands of troops staging exercises in Belarus, north of Ukraine, that are due to end on Sunday. 

Belarus’ leader Alexander Lukashenko said on Friday they could stay as long as needed.

Western countries fear a conflict on a scale unseen in Europe at least since the Yugoslav and Chechen wars of the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands died and millions fled, and have urged Putin repeatedly to negotiate.

The Kremlin confirmed on Saturday that Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron will speak by phone on Sunday, the TASS news agency reported.