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As Shelling Increases in Ukraine, Russia Fires Missiles in a Blunt Warning

todayFebruary 19, 2022

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MUNICH — As shelling struck towns in eastern Ukraine on Saturday and civilians boarded buses to evacuate the region, Russia engaged in a dramatic display of military theater, test-firing ballistic and cruise missiles in a reminder to the West that a conflict over Ukraine could quickly escalate.

In eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have asserted, without evidence, that Ukraine was planning a large-scale attack, separatist leaders urged women and children to evacuate and able-bodied men to prepare to fight.

While Western leaders have dismissed the notion that Ukraine would launch an attack while surrounded by Russian forces, the ginned-up panic was a disturbing sign of what the United States has warned could be a pretext for a Russian invasion. President Biden declared on Friday that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had already decided to invade Ukraine.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, flew to Munich on Saturday to shore up Western support for his threatened nation.

Western leaders there displayed a united front and issued repeated calls for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. Vice President Kamala Harris called the crisis “a defining moment” for European security and the defense of democratic values.

But Mr. Putin sent his own message, presiding over tests of nuclear-capable missiles as part of what Russia insists are only military exercises around Ukraine 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 on Saturday appeared carefully timed to deter the West from direct military involvement in Ukraine.

In Munich, Ms. Harris warned that if Russia invaded Ukraine, 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.”

“Russia continues to claim it is ready for talks, while at the same time it narrows the avenues for diplomacy,” she said. “Their actions simply do not match their words.”

In Ukraine, shelling escalated in the east, where Russia-backed separatists have battled government forces in the past few days.

Artillery fire picked up along the entire length of the front line, the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs said on Saturday. The shelling was roughly double the level of the previous two days, the ministry said.

Several 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.

“I have a small baby,” said Nadya Lapygina, a resident of Staryi Aidar, one of several dozen towns hit by artillery and mortar fire on the northern border of the breakaway separatist region of Luhansk. “You have no idea how scary it is to hide him from the shelling.”

There were also alarming signs of what American officials described as possible precursors to a pretext for a Russian invasion. Leaders of Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine issued a call on Saturday for all men in the territory they control to register to fight.

The separatists, viewed by the West as Russian proxies, called Friday for 700,000 women and children to evacuate the region, claiming that Ukrainian government forces were planning a large-scale attack.

On Saturday, Denis Pushilin, the 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.

“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, and the United States dismissed the accusation as a lie intended to give Russia a pretext for launching an invasion.

So did the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who dismissed Russian claims of a “genocide” being committed by Kyiv in the eastern Donbas region as “really ridiculous, to be very clear on that.”

A Russian move into Ukraine would be a “grave mistake” that would prompt immediate and heavy “political, economic and strategic” consequences, Mr. Scholz said at the Munich Security Conference. “Nothing justifies the deployment of well over 100,000 Russian soldiers around Ukraine. No country should be another’s backyard.”

Similar warnings were uttered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. She promised a serious package of financial and economic sanctions against Moscow in case of any aggression, which “may cost Russia a prosperous future.”

Even the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, in a striking comment of some distancing from Russia, said that the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of every country should be safeguarded. “Ukraine is no exception,” he said in a virtual appearance at the Munich conference. But he also urged the United States to stop making “hyperbolic warnings” about Russian intentions.

The separatist warnings of an impending attack led to real scenes of chaos at bus depots in eastern Ukraine.

Inna Shalpa, a resident of the separatist-held town of Ilovaisk, in the Donetsk region, had no idea where the Russian bus she and her three children boarded was headed, but she was ready to accept the uncertainty to flee an expected war.

“We were mostly worried about the children,” Ms. Shalpa, 35, said in the middle of a frantic effort to distribute refugees among buses, parked in front of the first Russian railway station on the other side of the border.

The Russian missile tests, of three ballistic and cruise missiles, were designed to make a media impact. Mr. Putin watched the display from a Kremlin command center, accompanied by President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, whose government has brutally suppressed dissent after a contested election and is considering letting Russia base some of its nuclear arsenal on its territory.

The test was technologically unremarkable, with videos issued by Moscow showing a fighter jet releasing a cruise missile from the air, a mobile-launch vehicle shooting off an intercontinental ballistic missile and a hypersonic sea-launched missile.

While the weapons demonstrated Saturday have been shown before, two of the three were designed to evade U.S. missile defenses. The Kremlin said the test was designed to show off Russia’s “triad” — launches from the ground, air, and sea — which mirrors the array of weapons in the American arsenal.

The heightened sense of urgency expressed by Washington was not immediately apparent in Kyiv, despite Mr. Biden’s having explicitly identified the capital city as a Russian target. The idea of Russian forces storming what is currently a calm and peaceful city was hard for many people there to imagine.

“Russia will do something,” Sofiya Soyedka, 32, a Kyiv resident, said just after Mr. Biden’s dire warning on Friday.

But invade Kyiv? “No way,” she said.

Some of the officials gathered in Munich also expressed doubts, suggesting that Mr. Putin may prefer a longer squeeze on Mr. Zelensky and Ukraine, creating provocations and anxiety and continuing to damage the Ukrainian economy. Such tactics, they suggested, would make it harder for the Europeans to inflict harsh sanctions on Russia and could damage the trans-Atlantic unity on this issue that American and European diplomats have so painfully constructed.

Mr. Biden’s televised speech on Friday evening was the first time that the president had said that he now considered, based on intelligence and troop movements, that Mr. Putin had decided on a major invasion of Ukraine “in the coming week, in the coming days,” adding that “we believe that they will target Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million innocent people.”

American officials said the president’s assessment was based in part on new intelligence showing that nearly half of the 150,000 Russian forces had moved out of staging and into combat formation, and could launch a full-scale invasion within days.

The force includes 120 to 125 battalion tactical groups, up from the mid-80s earlier in the month. And some of the forces are Russian reservists who would make up an occupation force after an invasion, the officials said. The officials asked for anonymity to discuss government assessments.

Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer from Severodonetsk, Ukraine; Roger Cohen, David E. Sanger and Katrin Bennhold from Munich; Marc Santora from Kyiv, Ukraine; Valerie Hopkins from Novoluhanske, Ukraine; and Ivan Nechepurenko from Rostov-on-Don, Russia.

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todayFebruary 19, 2022