A Russian-backed separatist leader in eastern Ukraine has declared that war is about to begin after ordering women, children, and the elderly to flee over the border to Russia in an ominous sign that this may be the pretext the Kremlin needs for a full-fledged offensive.
Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, appeared on Russian state television just hours after he announced mass evacuations. Asked point blank by a Rossiya 24 host whether the situation is headed for full-scale war, he said, “Yes, unfortunately. Yes.”
The alarming statement came after the separatist leader had earlier ordered evacuations, saying that “Russian leadership” had authorized his order and claiming that Ukraine was preparing a military offensive, which it denies. The Kremlin has prepared shelters and facilities to accommodate hundreds of thousands of evacuees.
“As of today, Feb. 18, a mass centralized evacuation of the population to the Russian Federation has been organized,” Pushilin said. The Interfax news agency reported that several hundred thousand people are now expected to leave the Donetsk People’s Republic to get to the neighboring Russian region of Rostov, starting with women and children.
Men, meanwhile, would not be allowed to leave, as they must stay behind and “defend” the territory, Pushilin said.
Shortly after reports of the mass evacuation emerged, Russian media reported an explosion outside separatist government headquarters in the middle of Donetsk. There were no reports of any fatalities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, ordered the government to issue 10,000 RUB ($130) payouts to each person entering Russia from Donbas.
The evacuations and overture from the Kremlin came as separatist leaders alleged that Ukraine was planning to launch an offensive against the occupied territories, though Ukraine’s foreign minister denied any such plans. Western allies have previously warned that the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine could be used as a false pretext for a Russian invasion.
In a statement, Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote, “We categorically refute Russian disinformation reports on Ukraine’s alleged offensive operations or acts of sabotage in chemical production facilities. Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas. We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only.”
There has been an upsurge in violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine in recent days. On Thursday, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported “multiple shelling incidents” carried out by Russian-backed separatists across the eastern frontline.
An estimated 150,000—190,000 Russian troops have now been deployed around Ukraine’s borders, but the Kremlin says no invasion is planned.
The evacuation comes as the steady drumbeat of war continues. On Thursday U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that the pretext could involve “a violent event” or “outrageous accusation against Ukraine.” It is unclear if the evacuation is tied to either of these.
Blinken, in an address to the United Nations Security Council, specifically 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.”