A Russian-backed separatist leader in eastern Ukraine has ordered women, children and the elderly to flee over the border to Russia in an ominous warning sign that an invasion could happen at any time.
Denish Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, announced the mass evacuation in a social media post on Friday. The separatist leader said that “Russian leadership” had authorized his order, claiming that the Kremlin has prepared shelters and facilities to accommodate hundreds of thousands of evacuees.
“As of today, Feb. 18, a mass centralized evacuation of the population to the Russian Federation has been organized,” Pushilin said. The Interfax news agency reported that several hundred thousand people are now expected to leave the Donetsk People’s Republic to get to the neighboring Russian region of Rostov, starting with women and children.
Pushilin went on to allege that Ukraine was planning to launch an offensive against the self-proclaimed republic, though Ukraine’s foreign minister denied any such plans shortly after Pushilin’s announcement. Western allies have previously warned that the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine could be used as a false pretext for a Russian invasion.
In a statement, Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote: “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. We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only.”
There has been an upsurge in violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine in recent days. On Thursday, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported “multiple shelling incidents” carried out by Russian-backed separatists across the eastern frontline.
An estimated 150,000—190,000 Russian troops have now been deployed around Ukraine’s borders, but the Kremlin says no invasion is planned.