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Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk speaks to media about security violations in Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine, on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

A top Ukrainian official said the recent withdrawal of Canadian, American and British citizens from an international mission that monitors conflict in eastern Ukraine has weakened the effort, thereby aiding Russian disinformation about growing violence along the front line.

The past 72 hours have seen both a substantial surge in artillery and mortar fire in Ukraine’s Donbas region and a flurry of attempts by Russia and its proxy forces to portray Ukraine as the aggressor.

There are growing fears that the Kremlin, which has amassed upwards of 170,000 troops on three sides of Ukraine, will stage a false-flag operation and use it to justify a wider invasion of its neighbour. United States President Joe Biden said on Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin has already decided to order an attack on Ukraine.

The leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” – militia groups that control parts of eastern Ukraine and report to Moscow – began evacuating civilians on Friday from the areas under their rule, while claiming it was Ukraine that was about to launch a military assault. The separatist regions have been outside of Kyiv’s control since 2014.

Ukrainian officials say they do not have an offensive in the works and that, even though the country’s military has taken heavy fire in recent days, soldiers are under strict orders only to return fire when lives are immediately at stake. Ukrainian military brass said 788 projectiles had landed on government-controlled territory on Saturday morning alone, up from 605 for all of Friday, which had previously been the most violent day of 2022.

Saturday’s upsurge came as Mr. Putin personally oversaw the beginning of exercises involving his country’s nuclear arsenal, which is the largest in the world. The timing of the nuclear drills has fed fears that a Russian assault on Ukraine could be imminent. France and Germany became the latest Western countries to tell their citizens to leave Ukraine as soon as possible.

Ukrainian soldiers in Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine, on February 19.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Russia says it has no plans to invade, but it has demanded guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance. The U.S. and NATO have formally told the Kremlin that it cannot have a veto over alliance policy, and Mr. Putin has warned that Russia could take “military-technical” steps in response to that refusal.

Mr. Putin has claimed that Ukraine is carrying out “genocide” against the predominantly Russian-speaking population of Donbas, something the United Nations says there is no evidence to support.

Until recently, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) monitoring mission was the neutral arbiter keeping track of violations of a ceasefire in Donbas. That truce now exists in theory only. More than 14,000 people have been killed in the region over the past eight years, including two Ukrainian soldiers who died Saturday.

The OSCE’s mission has been further weakened by this month’s decisions by Canada, the U.S., and Britain to withdraw their nationals from the region because of the growing possibility of a wider war.

The 37 Canadian members of the OSCE effort were ordered to leave last weekend, as were 260 Canadian soldiers who had been in Ukraine on a training mission. The Canadian Embassy in Kyiv has temporarily closed. Ambassador Larisa Galadza and other key staff have redeployed to the city of Lviv, near Ukraine’s western border with Poland.

The withdrawals shrank the OSCE mission by almost 20 per cent, from 689 people to 566.

The largest contributors to the OSCE effort are now Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kyrgyzstan and Moldova. The mission also has 24 Russian staff members. After touring part of the front line on Saturday, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk made it clear that she thought the mission lost credibility when so many Western staff were ordered to depart.

She asked Canada, the U.S. and Britain to “review the question” and return their monitors to Donbas “to deliver unbiased information about the situation.” Ms. Vereshchuk suggested that the mission is now being used politically by Russia and its proxies to blur the facts about what is happening on the ground.

“We need to have a straight record of these situations. We need to make sure that every single incident is properly documented,” she said in response to a question from The Globe.

Ms. Vereshchuk pointed specifically to the OSCE mission’s report about Thursday’s shelling of a kindergarten in Stanitsya Luhanska, which was hit while 20 preschoolers were in the building. Three staff members suffered concussions in the attack, though the children were uninjured because they were gathered in another part of the school.

Although The Globe has been able to visit the kindergarten twice since Thursday, the OSCE report said its monitors had been barred by a local law enforcement officer from visiting the site.

While impact marks strongly suggest the school and its adjacent playground were stuck by projectiles fired from the south – and likely from within separatist-controlled territory, which begins five kilometres away in that direction – the OSCE said that its staff were kept at a distance of 50 metres from the school and were therefore “unable to determine the weapons used or the direction of fire.”

Ms. Vereshchuk said the OSCE’s contentions were untrue, and that monitors had made no attempt to visit the school. Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Ukrainian-controlled areas of Luhansk oblast, said the OSCE team has his mobile number and would have called him immediately if a police officer had tried to obstruct their work. That didn’t happen, he said.

The OSCE’s report that it had been prevented from investigating the kindergarten attack has been used by pro-Russian social media accounts to suggest that Ukrainian forces either faked the attack on the nursery or shelled it themselves.

The OSCE monitoring team is having its credibility called into question just when neutral observers are needed most in the region. Russia said on Saturday that two shells fired from Ukraine had landed on its territory, causing no injuries but damaging a building in the Rostov region. Ukrainian officials denied the report – they said they had no artillery near the front line capable of striking that part of Russia – and called for an international investigation.

“We are not attempting to advance. We have no advancing plans whatsoever,” Ms. Vereshchuk said.

Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk speaks at a security briefing in Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine, on Feb. 19, 2022.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Ukrainian military intelligence warned on Saturday that Russian mercenaries deployed in Donbas were planning to strike civilian infrastructure in separatist-controlled areas in the days ahead and blame Ukraine for the attacks. Though the OSCE mandate covers both sides of the front line, the mission has regularly complained that separatist officials have obstructed monitors from visiting the areas under their control.

Artillery fire was audible throughout the afternoon on Saturday in Stanytsia Luhanska and other parts of the front line. Several volleys sent visiting foreign journalists and local officials running for cover. Mr. Haidai, the governor, said that while plans had been made to evacuate Luhansk residents, he didn’t believe it was time to order people out of their homes yet.

“If we see a critical quantity of shellings, shellings that are targeted not at military locations, but at non-military locations, the decision about evacuation will be made immediately. But not today. Today, Russia is creating conditions to make us panic here – something they have been unable to achieve,” he said after a briefing with officials in Stanitsya Luhanska.

Only a handful of the town’s 12,000 residents ventured outside their homes on Saturday.

Valentina Kondrativna, an 83-year-old retired engineer, blames the West for the conflict.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

“They are shooting in the morning, in the evening and at night. They could shoot again at this moment,” said Valentina Kondrativna, an 83-year-old retired engineer who was walking alone down an otherwise deserted main street.

But while Saturday’s shelling again sounded like it was coming from the area controlled by pro-Russian separatists, Ms. Kondrativna said she blamed the West for the conflict. Despite the fighting, she said she still has affection for Russia, where many of her relatives live, and fond memories of the Soviet Union era, when Russians and Ukrainians were all ruled from Moscow.

“If the Americans and British hadn’t come to Ukraine, we would be able to resolve this issue on our own ... like it used to be, when we all lived together in Soviet times,” she said.

Ukraine says Russian-backed separatists to blame after shelling hits kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine, and that videos of fleeing civilians made in separatist-controlled areas of Donetsk are manufactured.

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