The leaders of pro-Russian proxy states in eastern Ukraine announced a mass evacuation of citizens to Russia on Friday evening, amid fears Moscow is manufacturing tension in the region to provide a pretext for renewed military intervention in Ukraine.
After the evacuation announcement, warning sirens sounded in Donetsk and other cities in the two Moscow-backed statelets, supposedly due to an upcoming Ukrainian military assault on the region.
On Friday evening the Russian-separatist authorities said that a car had been blown up near their government building in the centre of Donetsk. There were no reports of casualties and a video seemed to show it was in an empty car park.
Vladimir Putin swiftly dispatched a top official to the border region and announced those arriving would be given a payment of 10,000 roubles (£95).
However, Ukrainian officials insisted they had no plans to launch any assault, and said that, in fact, recent days have seen a dramatic upsurge in fire by Russia-backed forces across the frontlines.
In Vrubivka, one of many towns on the Ukrainian side of the frontline that has seen an uptick in violence in the past two days, humanitarian monitors were analysing the damage on Friday afternoon and helping residents with repairs. Twelve buildings in the town were damaged by incoming artillery fire on Thursday, the first time the town has been hit since August 2018.
“I just hope there isn’t going to be any more of this. I can’t sleep at night. My arms and legs are shaking, and it’s scary,” said Anatoly Romanenko, 77, whose roof was damaged in the attacks.
There have been reports of incoming fire along the whole length of the line of control, which was frozen in place by a 2015 ceasefire after a bloody conflict between Kyiv’s forces and separatists armed and funded by Moscow.
For the past seven years locals on both sides of the frontlines have got used to what is known here as “badminton” – the sporadic exchange of fire across the front.
The events of this week seem different, however. Daily reports by international monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe have shown a massive increase in both ceasefire violations and recorded explosions over the past two days, while the Ukrainian army has claimed the separatist ceasefire violations have been higher than at any time in the past three years.
Ukrainian officials insist the uptick in violence originates with the separatists and is a cynical attempt to goad Kyiv into a response and provide a pretext for a Russian attack.
Russia has moved more than 150,000 troops to various areas around Ukraine’s border. Russian officials have dismissed concerns over the troop buildup as western hysteria, but have also suggested the troops may only be stood down if western capitals accede to Moscow’s demands for a new security architecture in Europe. US intelligence agencies have warned Moscow may seek to manufacture a false-flag incident as a pretext for intervention.
Along the line of control it is often hard to tell exactly where incoming fire originated, and plenty of rumours and doctored photographs have appeared online adding to the confusion. On Thursday morning some pro-Russian Twitter accounts posted photographs of a damaged kindergarten, supposedly inside separatist territory and hit by Ukrainian forces. In fact, the kindergarten was in Stanytsia Luhanska, in Ukrainian territory.
In Vrubivka, too, incoming fire landed just metres away from the local school at a time when 37 children aged between six and 11 were in lessons.
“Unfortunately we don’t have a cellar, but we heard the first noises, the teachers quickly took all the children and rushed them into the corridor where there are no windows, and got them all to lie on the floor,” said the headteacher, Elena Yaryna.
“Then we felt the close-up hit, the building shook and we could hear smashed glass. There was real hysteria, the children were all screaming,” she said. Nobody was injured in the attack.
There appears to be little military rationale for some of the attacks, adding to the sense that they may be designed simply to provoke a response. Locals in Vrubivka said there were no Ukrainian military positions or installations in the close vicinity.
Local residents wonder whether the constant warnings of approaching war on television will lead to a renewed hot phase of the conflict that has blighted their lives for the past eight years.
Valentyna Melnychenko, 72, saw her kitchen annexe pulverised on Thursday morning as she sat watching television. Her husband had built it before he died recently. On Friday she wept in despair, saying she was lonely and scared.
Meanwhile, Russia’s proxies in eastern Ukraine stepped up their claims of an oncoming Ukrainian attack on Friday with the evacuation announcement. There has been no evidence that Ukraine is planning such an offensive, which would be an exceedingly risky gambit at a time when Ukraine’s borders are surrounded by Russian troops.
Instead, the separatist evacuation sparked fears it could be part of a plan to trigger a Russian intervention in Ukraine.
In a video address on Friday, Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said he believed the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, was planning to launch an offensive against the separatist areas.
Pushilin said he was organising a “mass, centralised departure of the population to the Russian Federation. Women, children and elderly people are subject to evacuation first.”
The Luhansk People’s Republic, another Russian-backed separatist state, announced similar plans.
Local residents received text messages with a warning about the evacuation, the Mash Telegram channel reported. “Attention! Citizens! An emergency evacuation has been announced! Stay calm, do not give in to panic! Inform your neighbours of this information!”
Video from the region showed several cities had activated air raid sirens. Photographs from Donetsk posted by Russian news agencies showed cars lined up for petrol, people queuing at ATMs to take out cash and a number of private buses queuing for the evacuation, which was set to begin on Friday evening.
Ukraine immediately denied Pushilin’s claims, as well as others in Russian-backed media that claimed the Ukrainian army was targeting a chemical facility.
“We categorically refute Russian disinformation reports on Ukraine’s alleged offensive operations or acts of sabotage in chemical production facilities,” said Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister.