The pro-Russian rebel leaders of two breakaway Ukrainian regions claimed yesterday to have started an emergency evacuation of thousands of civilians to Russia to save them from looming invasion by Ukrainian government forces.
It comes amid a burgeoning disinformation campaign, fuelling fears that their supposed plight will be used to trigger an invasion of Ukraine by the 190,000 Russian troops encircling the nation.
Pictures were released showing children being gathered and buses lined up for the evacuation of 700,000 people. Air raid sirens were heard in Donetsk. The rebels also showed images of a car belonging to a police chief they claim was attacked.
Vladimir Putin, who has started claiming ‘genocide’ is taking place in Donbas despite a lack of supporting evidence, said he was seeing a ‘deterioration of the situation’ in eastern Ukraine
Their claims come amid a substantial spike in shelling over the border into Ukraine, the sabotage of mobile phone communications in several towns in the eastern Donbas region and the staged kidnap of a pro-Russian activist in Kharkiv.
‘We are seeing clear signs the Kremlin is trying to stir instability and create panic in Donbas areas under Ukrainian control to find a pretext for aggression,’ said Yevhen Yenin, deputy minister of internal affairs.
Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has started claiming ‘genocide’ is taking place in Donbas despite a lack of supporting evidence, said yesterday he was seeing a ‘deterioration of the situation’ in eastern Ukraine and offered 10,000 roubles (£95) to every refugee from the region.
Mr Putin made a series of unsubstantiated claims at a press conference, including that Ukraine was guilty of ‘mass and systematic violation of human rights’ as well as enshrining into law ‘discrimination of the Russian-speaking population’.
One of his closest allies also claimed mass graves were being investigated in Donbas.
‘Kiev’s crimes are hushed up by Washington and Brussels,’ said Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of the Russian parliament.
Washington accused Russia of deliberately trying to mask its aggression towards Ukraine through a campaign of lies and disinformation.
A woman stands inside among debris after the reported shelling of a kindergarten in the settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine yesterday
‘It is cynical and cruel to use human beings as pawns to distract the world from the fact that Russia is building up its forces in preparation for an attack,’ said a State Department spokesman.
At the same time that Mr Putin was speaking, Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, released a video announcing the start of a mass evacuation of citizens to the Rostov region of Russia to protect them from ‘the armed forces of the enemy’.
The Luhansk People’s Republic, a second rebel-held territory, later issued similar evacuation orders as the border crisis took a dramatic turn for the worse.
Lieutenant General Valeriy Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, insisted there was no threat to the rebel-held areas but that Moscow-backed militants were ‘deliberately misleading residents of the temporarily occupied territories’.
Valentyna Melnychenko with members of the JCCC, who survey damage to her home from an artillery shell that landed in Vrubivka, in the Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine yesterday
Ukrainian intelligence has also warned Russian special forces may be planning to mine ‘social infrastructure facilities in Donetsk’ and lay the blame on Ukraine.
There is no sign of any Ukrainian offensive along the 190-mile frontline that has remained largely static for seven years since the separatist revolt backed by Russian forces after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Although shelling increased this week from the separatist side – with a kindergarten among targets hit and the heaviest bombardments for six years – Ukraine has given firm orders to its forces not to respond to avoid giving Russia any excuse to invade.
Analysts say there has been a substantial increase in fake stories circulated on social media over the past two days on channels connected to Russian security forces, along with a string of false news reports from Donbas on state-aligned media.
Military helicopters fire flying over the Osipovichi training ground during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills near Osipovichi , Belarus yesterday
‘The goal is to cover up the Kremlin’s false flag operations in the occupied Donbas,’ said Maria Avdeeva, a Kharkiv-based expert on disinformation.
‘This will create a pretext for Russia-backed authorities in the so-called republics to ask for help from Moscow to protect Russian citizens in the territories.’
In another dramatic turn yesterday, an activist belonging to a political party funded by an oligarch close to Mr Putin posted a video claiming he had been kidnapped and tortured as part of a state-run terror campaign against Russian speakers.
But Ukrainian security sources said they intercepted text messages from the activist a few minutes after his supposed kidnap to party colleagues in which they discussed the stunt.
‘It was another provocation to create instability,’ said a source.
- Additional reporting by Kate Baklitskaya