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Russia has extended military exercises in Belarus near the Ukrainian border, as Kiev’s president called for a ceasefire in the east of the country amid intensified fighting between Ukraine’s military and pro-Russian separatists.
The presence of about 30,000 Russian soldiers in Belarus has raised fears in some western capitals that they could be used as part of a larger force to invade Ukraine. Russia denies any intention to do so.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “everything we’re seeing suggests that this is dead serious, that we are on the brink of an invasion”.
Belarus’s defence ministry said the extension of the drills, which were supposed to end on Sunday, was because of an “increase in military activity” near the Belarusian and Russian borders and the escalation of fighting in Donbas, eastern Ukraine.
More than 6,600 people have fled Donetsk, and about 25,000 people have left Luhansk, with 10,000 preparing to leave, separatist officials said on Saturday.
Russia, which has massed an estimated 150,000 soldiers, warplanes and equipment on the Ukrainian border, has been threatened by the West with heavy economic sanctions if it invades its neighbour.
Diplomatic efforts to find a way forward have so far yielded little. Mr Blinken told CNN on Sunday that US President Joe Biden was willing to meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin “at any time” to defuse tension.
French President Emmanuel Macron called Mr Putin on Sunday.
They spoke for 105 minutes, which the Elysee said represented “the final possible and necessary efforts to avoid a major conflict in Ukraine”. Mr Macron then spoke to Mr Zelenskyy.
A Kremlin readout of the call said Mr Putin blamed Ukrainian “provocations” for the escalation in tension but that “the presidents believe it is important to intensify efforts to find solutions through diplomatic means”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the repeated warnings by the West that Russia was about to invade Ukraine were provocative.
“The fact is that this directly leads to an increase in tension. And when tension is escalated to the maximum, as it is now, for example, on the line of contact [in eastern Ukraine], then any spark, any unplanned incident or any minor planned provocation can lead to irreparable consequences,” Mr Peskov said.
“So all this has – may have – detrimental consequences. The daily exercise of announcing a date for Russia to invade Ukraine is a very bad practice.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country desired “intensifying the peace process” and talks with Russia.
European Council chief Charles Michel said that “the big question remains: does the Kremlin want dialogue?” He then referred to claims from Russia last week that it had withdrawn some troops from the Ukrainian border.
“A few days ago, their words offered a very, very small ray of hope, but their actions take the form of continued military build-up, with serious incidents in the Donbas, including today.”
“We cannot forever offer an olive branch while Russia conducts missile tests and continues to amass troops,” Mr Michel told the Munich Security Conference on Sunday.
“One thing is certain: if there is further military aggression, we will react with massive sanctions.”
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while stating that sanctions would hit Russia “very, very hard,” conceded the threat may not be enough.
“We have to accept at the moment that Vladimir Putin is possibly thinking illogically about this and doesn’t see the disaster ahead,” he told the BBC on Sunday.
Referring to the Russian troop build-up, Mr Johnson said the “plan that we are seeing is for something that could be really the biggest war in Europe since 1945 just in terms of sheer scale”.
Mr Johnson said US President Joe Biden had briefed allies on Friday about the potential plans Russia had for an invasion.
“You’re looking at not just an invasion through the east, through the Donbas, but according to the intelligence that we’re seeing, coming down from the north, down from Belarus, and actually encircling Kiev itself, as Joe Biden explained to a lot of us,” he said.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the West should impose some of the sanctions now, rather than waiting for an invasion.
“Russia has to be stopped right now. We see how events are unfolding,” he said.
The focus in recent days has been on the chunk of eastern Ukraine that Russian-backed rebels seized in 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
More than 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the east since then.