Updated Feb 18, 2022 - World

Civilians evacuated from eastern Ukraine as pro-Russia separatists warn of war

Denis Pushilin

Photo: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Pro-Russian separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine ordered the mass evacuation of women, children and elderly civilians to Russia on Friday, alleging that Ukraine was preparing a military offensive. Ukraine immediately denied the accusations.

Why it matters: U.S. officials have warned that Russia is preparing to manufacture a pretext to invade Ukraine in the coming days, and that it could take the form of a fabricated escalation in territory controlled by separatists.

The latest: Metadata from the messaging app Telegram indicates that the leaders of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics created videos ordering "emergency" evacuations from eastern Ukraine two days ago, but posted them on Friday.

  • Russian media reported that a vehicle belonging to a separatist security chief was targeted in an alleged car bombing in Donetsk, but that no one was harmed.
  • Denis Pushilin, the head of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), told Russian media that the situation was "unfortunately" moving toward "major war."
  • A State Department spokesperson called the explosion and evacuation "further attempts to obscure through lies and disinformation that Russia is the aggressor in this conflict."
  • Ukraine's Defense Intelligence Agency accused Russia's security services of placing mines near unspecified "infrastructure facilities" in Donetsk in an attempt to fabricate "terrorist attacks" that would be blamed on Ukraine.

Context: Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the United Nations Security Council on Thursday that the pretext could involve a "violent event" precipitated by Russia, or "an outrageous accusation" against Ukraine.

  • He cited the possibility of a "fabricated so-called terrorist bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of a mass grave, a staged drone strike against civilians, or even a real attack using chemical weapons."
  • Ukraine has since 2014 been fighting a low-grade war against the pro-Russian separatists who declared independent "republics" in Donetsk and Luhansk (see map).
Data: Mapbox/OSCE as of Feb. 14, 2022; Map: Will Chase/Axios

What they're saying: "We categorically refute Russian disinformation reports on Ukraine’s alleged offensive operations or acts of sabotage in chemical production facilities," Ukraine's foreign affairs minister, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted.

  • "Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas. We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only."

Driving the news: Pushilin said in a video posted online that his forces have observed an increase in the number of Ukrainian military personnel and weapons along the line of contact.

  • He claimed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will soon give an order for the military "to invade the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics."
  • Pushilin said Russia had agreed to allow civilians to be transported to the Rostov region across the border, and that more than 700,000 civilians are set to be evacuated.

Leonid Pasechnik, head of the Luhansk People's Republic, posted a similar evacuation order a short time later, while also appealing to able-bodied men to take up arms.

  • The Ukrainian government has denied planning any kind of offensive operation and has accused the separatists of escalating tensions with artillery shelling over the past 48 hours.
  • Air raid sirens and buses queuing in preparation for the evacuation in Donetsk were captured on social media.

The big picture: The Kremlin has in recent days ramped up its inflammatory rhetoric about the situation in eastern Ukraine, with Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing Kyiv of carrying out a "genocide."

  • A "joint investigative committee" of the Russian government and RT Media circulated documents to members of the UN Security Council this week that claimed Ukraine has engaged in war crimes by killing civilians in Donbas.
  • A U.S. official told reporters that the allegations are "categorically false" and part of Russia's attempt to build a pretext for war.

Flashback: Prior to Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008, the leaders of the breakaway "Republic of South Ossetia" ordered a civilian evacuation.

Go deeper: U.S. says Putin is putting Ukraine invasion plan in motion

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