© Reuters. An exterior view shows a kindergarten, which according to Ukraine’s military officials was damaged by shelling, in Stanytsia Luhanska in the Luhansk region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released February 17, 2022. Press Service of the Joint Forces Ope
By Dmitry Antonov and Pavel Polityuk
MOSCOW/KYIV (Reuters) -Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels reported increased shelling in eastern Ukraine for a second straight day on Friday, an escalation that Washington and other Western allies say could form part of a Russian pretext to invade.
Russia denies Western accusations that it is planning an invasion and has said this week it is drawing down forces massed near Ukraine. Western countries say they believe the opposite: more equipment and personnel are arriving and making the sort of preparations normally seen in the final days before an attack.
Financial markets, on edge over the prospect of a major war in Europe, took some comfort from an announcement overnight that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had agreed to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov next week – provided Russia has not invaded first.
A marked escalation of shelling in eastern Ukraine, where government troops have faced Moscow-backed rebels for eight years, has stoked global alarm since Thursday.
Both sides have said shelling stepped up dramatically over the past 48 hours, although so far no deaths have been reported.
On Thursday, an OSCE monitoring mission, which typically records dozens of minor ceasefire violations a day, said there had been nearly 600 violations including more than 300 explosions in the past 24 hours.
The Kremlin expressed alarm on Friday over the situation in eastern Ukraine, saying it looked potentially very dangerous.
BLINKEN WARNING TO SECURITY COUNCIL
In the most detailed U.S. warning yet of the likelihood of war, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the U.N. Security Council that Washington believed Russia was planning an all-out assault on its neighbour. It could begin with a manufactured pretext, possibly involving a faked attack and false accusations about the separatist conflict, Blinken said.
“We have reason to believe they are engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in,” President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House on Thursday. “Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine and attack Ukraine.”
Biden, who has been rallying allies to maintain a unified stance, will host a call on Friday with the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Romania, as well as the European Union and NATO. Blinken will meet counterparts at a security conference in Munich.
The Kremlin has dismissed accusations that it is planning an invasion as Western hysteria. Moscow said on Friday that a tank unit and two mechanised infantry units were heading back to bases in southern and central Russia following exercises.
But Russia has also forcefully pressed a set of security demands, including a promise that Ukraine never be admitted into NATO, which the West calls a non-starter.
On Thursday Russia delivered a strongly-worded letter to the United States accusing it of ignoring Moscow’s security demands and threatening unspecified “military-technical measures” in the absence of binding U.S. assurances.
Russia announced that President Vladimir Putin would personally supervise exercises of its strategic nuclear missile forces on Saturday.
A quarrel over tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions also heated up, after Moscow ordered out the number two official in the U.S. embassy in retaliation for what it said was the unjustified U.S. expulsion of an unidentified senior Russian diplomat. Washington said the Russians were expelling diplomats more quickly and with less warning, and called the moves escalatory.
Ukraine itself has played down the likelihood that Russia will launch a massive assault soon, often putting it publicly at odds with its Western friends. Kyiv argues that premature warnings of war play into Moscow’s hands by sowing alarm and hurting the fragile Ukrainian economy.
“Our intelligence sees every move that could pose a potential threat to Ukraine. We estimate the probability of a large-scale escalation as low,” Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov told parliament on Friday.
Among the ambiguities surrounding the Kremlin’s intentions are its plans for tens of thousands of troops staging exercises in Belarus, north of Ukraine. Moscow has said the troops would go back to Russia at some point after the drills end on Sunday, but has not said when.
The Russian-backed leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, landed in Moscow on Friday to discuss the troop presence with Putin, suggesting he was open to letting them stay for now.
“It we take a decision, we’ll remove (the force) within 24 hours. If we decide a month, they’ll stay for a month. The armed forces will stay as long as needed,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying by the state BelTa news agency.
In a further indication of regional tensions, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced on Friday during a visit to Warsaw the planned sale of 250 Abrams tanks to Poland, a key NATO ally of the United States that borders Ukraine and Russia.