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A woman walks to board a bus arranged to evacuate local residents, in the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk, Ukraine.ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin will personally oversee snap drills of his country’s nuclear arsenal starting on Saturday, according to a statement from the Kremlin – a move that will ramp up international tensions amid concerns that Mr. Putin is planning to order a large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

During a Friday news conference in Moscow, Mr. Putin also appeared to brace Russians for the possibility their country could soon face tough new economic sanctions, which the West has vowed to use only if Russia sends troops into Ukraine. Russia has said it has no plans to attack its neighbour.

U.S. President Joe Biden said for the first time Friday that he believed Mr. Putin had made up his mind to invade, and that the attack would start in the “coming week.”

“As of this moment, I’m convinced he’s made the decision. We have reason to believe that,” Mr. Biden told reporters at the White House. He and his officials had previously said that they believed the Russian autocrat was still trying to decide.

The U.S. President held calls with NATO leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and members of Congress from both parties to reaffirm their support for swift sanctions on Russia if an invasion proceeds. He said he did not believe Mr. Putin would use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but that the Russian leader was “trying to convince the world that he has the ability to change the dynamics in Europe.”

Meanwhile, the situation in eastern Ukraine deteriorated further on Friday as pro-Russian separatist leaders in the country’s Donbas region ordered an evacuation of civilians living in the areas under their control. The separatists asserted that a Ukrainian army assault was imminent, while Western leaders continued to warn that the Kremlin might be preparing a false-flag operation in Donbas to justify a preplanned attack on Ukraine.

Denis Pushilin, head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a video address that women, children and the elderly would be evacuated to the nearby Rostov region of Russia. Shortly after the announcement, air raid sirens screamed through the city of Donetsk, which had a population of 900,000 before the outbreak of fighting in the region eight years ago.

A few hours later, a car exploded near the government administration building in the centre of Donetsk. Russian state media reported that the vehicle belonged to a commander of the separatist militia.

Specialists inspect a wreckage of a car that, according to the local authorities, was blown up near the government building, in the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk, Ukraine, Feb. 18, 2022.ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/Reuters

“Attention! Citizens! An emergency evacuation has been announced! Don’t lose your temper, don’t panic! Let your neighbors know!” read a text message sent out to Donetsk residents that was shared with The Globe. The message listed border crossing points that could be used to enter Russia.

Evacuation orders in Donetsk and Luhansk, another city under separatist control in eastern Ukraine, came shortly after Russia’s official TASS news service reported that pro-Russian fighters had killed two Polish-speaking saboteurs who had planned to blow up cylinders of chlorine in the separatist-controlled city of Horlivka. Mr. Pushilin said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was preparing to order a military assault on Donetsk and Luhansk, something Ukrainian officials have repeatedly denied.

“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,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter. He said Ukraine remained “fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only.”

At the news conference in Moscow, alongside Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko, Mr. Putin said there was “rising tension in Donbas” and called on Mr. Zelensky to de-escalate the situation by holding direct talks with the leaders of the breakaway regions.

Both Mr. Zelensky and his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, refused to negotiate directly with the militia leaders, since that would have meant accepting the Russian narrative that the Donbas conflict – which has killed more than 14,000 people – is an intra-Ukrainian civil war that Moscow has played no part in. Ukraine has insisted instead on talks with the Kremlin as the de facto ruler of the breakaway regions.

U.S. says Russia planning to fake attack as excuse to invade Ukraine

Ukraine says Russian-backed separatists to blame after shelling hits kindergarten

Thursday and Friday saw a sharp escalation in the number of ceasefire violations along the front line in Donbas. The Ukrainian military reported 60 attacks on Thursday alone, including one shell that struck a kindergarten near the front line, injuring three staff. There were two to five attacks per day over the first six weeks of this year.

The Ukrainian military says it has ordered its forces not to return fire, for fear of provoking a wider Russian assault. However, Russian state media reported that separatist positions had come under fire from artillery 21 times in a single hour on Thursday.

While Canada, the U.S. and the EU have said they will introduce harsh sanctions only if and when Russian troops launch a wider invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Putin suggested that sanctions were coming no matter what Russia did next. “Sanctions will be imposed in any case. Whether they have a reason today, for example, in connection with the events in Ukraine, or there is no such reason – it will be found,” Mr. Putin said Friday, adding that he believed it was the goal of the West to impede the economic development of Russia and its ally Belarus.

Mr. Lukashenko was even more ominous in his remarks. “For the first time in 30 years we are on the edge of a conflict that will envelop the entire continent,” he said, adding that his country would stand with Russia. “We don’t want war, but if somebody is eager, they will get an absolutely asymmetric response.”

In his White House speech, Mr. Biden warned that Russia was trying to manufacture a pretext to invade Ukraine – the sort of “false flag” operation that the U.S. has said its intelligence has long shown Mr. Putin was planning. The U.S. President said Russia was trying to provoke Ukraine in Donbas and making “phony” allegations, including of genocide and that Ukraine was planning an attack on Russia.

“All these are consistent with the playbook the Russians have used before, to set up a false justification to act against Ukraine,” he said, adding that he believed the Russian invasion would target the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

In addition to Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Biden spoke with the leaders of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Poland and Romania to co-ordinate sanctions against Russia. The President reaffirmed that he would not send U.S. troops into the country in the event of an invasion, but said the sanctions would be tougher than those levelled on Russia previously.

This weekend is emerging as a key moment in the months-long crisis, with the nuclear drills, dubbed GROM-2022, beginning just before massive Russian military exercises in Belarus are due to end on Sunday. Observers in Ukraine and beyond will be watching to see whether the 30,000 Russian troops currently in Belarus will return home at the conclusion of their joint drills with Belarusian troops along Ukraine’s northern border.

Russian naval exercises in the Black Sea are due to end on Saturday, meaning that upwards of 170,000 Russian troops massed on three sides of Ukraine will soon be at full combat readiness. Michael Carpenter, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a statement on Friday that Russia now has “between 169,000-190,000 personnel in and near Ukraine” compared to around 100,000 at the end of January.

“At the very least GROM will be interpreted as a form of signalling to the West,” Rochan Consulting, a Polish security consultancy, wrote in a note to subscribers, referring to Russia’s nuclear exercises, which usually last three to five days. “If Russia conducts any combat operations against Ukraine during GROM, the exercise will serve as a deterrent against any Western actions against Russia and will show Moscow’s willingness to escalate tensions vis-à-vis Ukraine and NATO. If a war is to start, it may as well start during GROM.”

Nationwide Ukrainian military exercises are due to end on Sunday as well. Despite warnings from the U.S. and other Western governments that a Russian assault could begin at any moment, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov told parliament in Kyiv on Friday that “the possibility of full-scale escalation” remained “small.”

This weekend also marks the anniversary of the bloodiest days of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, which saw the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych driven from office by protesters who wanted to see their country turn away from Russia and towards the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance.

Mr. Putin has always viewed the 2014 revolt as a Western-backed coup. His key demand throughout the current crisis has been for guarantees that Ukraine, which shares a 2,000-kilometre-long border with Russia, will never be allowed to join NATO. Russia has also demanded that NATO withdraw its forces from Eastern Europe.

The U.S. and NATO have refused the Kremlin’s demands.

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