Russia’s large-scale military deployment in Belarus, which the United States has long warned could be used as a pretext to build an invasion force aimed at Ukraine, will be extended beyond Sunday, when joint exercises had been scheduled to conclude, Belarus’s defense minister announced.
After repeated assurances from Russia and Belarus that the drills would end this weekend as planned, the Belarusian defense minister said on Sunday that the two countries’ militaries would continue to “test” their capabilities because of what they claimed were heightened tensions in eastern Ukraine.
The apparent extension of the exercises — which NATO has said involve 30,000 Russian troops, Moscow’s largest deployment on Belarus territory since the end of the Cold War — put further pressure on Ukraine, which shares a roughly 665-mile border with Belarus that is largely unguarded.
Belarus’s defense minister, Lt. Gen. Viktor Khrenin, cited an escalation of violence in eastern Ukraine as the reason for continuing the exercises, although Ukrainian officials say Russia-backed separatists are responsible for the increase in tensions.
On Sunday, separatist leaders suspended a wide range of public activities in the eastern region, known as the Donbas, including “leisure, entertainment, entertainment, cultural, exhibition, educational, public and other similar events,” according to a statement posted on their Telegram channel.
The statement released by the self-proclaimed government in the region offered no evidence that there was a danger to the public.
And it was part of an ominous shift in the long-running conflict in the Donbas, where the Russia-backed rebels in recent days have called for civilians to evacuate to Russia and for residents to take up arms against a possible invasion by Ukraine. Ukraine has denied plans to invade, and Western officials have described the separatists’ claims as lies intended to justify a military intervention by Moscow.
General Khrenin said on Sunday that because of “the growing military activity on the external borders of the Union State and the exacerbation of the situation in the Donbas, the presidents of Belarus and Russia have made the decision to continue the inspection of reaction forces.”
The union state, until recently a largely aspirational entity, refers to a merged state comprising Russia and Belarus that was initiated in 1997 but has recently begun to take on a concrete form as Russia has subordinated the Belarusian military and other state structures to its effective command.
General Khrenin did not elaborate on what tests would be carried out, or how long they would last. But his remarks indicated Russian troops would not be leaving Belarus, at least not immediately.
Russian military positions
Source: Russian positions from Rochan Consulting as of Feb. 16. The New York Times
As part of the exercises dubbed “Allied Resolve,” which began on Feb. 10, Russia has deployed some of its most advanced and well-equipped forces to nine different bases and airfields around Belarus, according to Russia’s defense ministry. These include highly trained special forces units and airborne troops, together with powerful S-400 antiaircraft systems and hundreds of aircraft, tanks and armored vehicles. Some are stationed within just a few hundred miles of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
The announcement on Sunday appeared to represent a reversal from earlier statements. Belarus’s foreign minister, Vladimir Makei, assured journalists last Wednesday that “not a single Russian serviceman and not a single piece of Russian military hardware will remain after these maneuvers.” Also last week, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said that Russia’s keeping troops in Belarus after the exercises “is not being considered.”
From the time the exercises were announced in January, Western officials have warned that the Kremlin could be using them to deploy forces for a possible invasion of Ukraine. Last month, Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, warned that Russia had in the past used military exercises as a cover for preparing for military action, including before Russian troops seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
“We’ve seen it many times before, that exercises, high readiness of forces as part of an exercise, is used as a disguise to launch an attack,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Sunday that President Biden was still willing to talk to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia despite the U.S. government’s assessment that Mr. Putin has already decided to invade Ukraine.
“We believe President Putin has made the decision, but until the tanks are actually rolling, and the planes are flying, we will use every opportunity and every minute we have to see if diplomacy can still dissuade President Putin from carrying this forward,” Mr. Blinken said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin last spoke for one hour by telephone on Feb. 12. In that call, Mr. Biden warned Mr. Putin that a new invasion of Ukraine would result in “swift and severe” costs for Russia. Mr. Biden has promised to impose harsh economic sanctions against Russia if Mr. Putin carries out an invasion, although Beijing, which has strengthened its ties to Moscow, could help blunt those penalties.
Mr. Biden said on Friday that he believed Russia would invade Ukraine within days. In recent weeks, the Russian military deployed more than 150,000 troops around Ukraine, positioning them along the country’s western border with Ukraine, on the Crimean Peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, and in Belarus, which has a pro-Moscow government. U.S. officials describe it as the largest military buildup in Europe since World War II.
Mr. Blinken said on Sunday that Russia was still taking all the steps expected by the United States for what could be a violent and large-scale incursion into Ukraine.
“As we’ve described it, everything leading up to the actual invasion appears to be taking place,” he said, hours after returning from the Munich Security Conference, where he and Vice President Kamala Harris tried to rally nations to put pressure on Russia to defuse the crisis.
He also criticized Russia’s decision to keep troops in Belarus beyond this weekend, when joint military exercises between the allies had been scheduled to end. The Belarus Defense Ministry announced on Sunday that the countries were extending the exercises. U.S. officials have warned that the exercises could serve as a cover for Russia to position combat forces closer to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
“Now they’re justifying the continuation of exercises that they said would end now,” Mr. Blinken said, describing it as part of Russia “continuing to ramp up tensions.”
Mr. Blinken and Mr. Biden have said Russia would try to create a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine, perhaps in the form of violent “false flag” operations that Moscow would attribute to the Ukrainian military, and carry out a disinformation campaign to present justification for action. Russia-backed insurgents in eastern Ukraine have increased their artillery shelling of Ukrainian forces and civilian areas in recent days. Pro-Russia officials who control the city of Donetsk have ordered residents to evacuate, claiming without evidence that the Ukrainian military is about to attack.
The State Department said Thursday that Mr. Blinken had accepted an invitation from Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, to meet this week in Europe. The two struck a conciliatory tone when they met in Geneva on Jan. 21. But Mr. Putin proceeded to amass his military forces around Ukraine in the weeks afterward.
KYIV, Ukraine — Even as rocket attacks continued in eastern Ukraine, and as Russian soldiers remained massed at the borders for what Western leaders call an imminent invasion, people in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, paused on Sunday to remember another moment of peril: the gunning down, eight years ago, of dozens of protesters by Ukraine’s government, which was then aligned with Moscow.
In Maidan square, the site of the massacre, a ceremony was held on Sunday morning to honor the “Heavenly Hundred,” as those killed on Feb. 20 and 21, 2014, are known here. More commemorations were planned in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine.
The ceremony began with a rendition of the national anthem, followed by a rifle salute and a solemn procession of people laying flowers at the location where many were killed.
Iryna Horbachova, with tears in her eyes, said just as the people fought then, the nation is ready to fight again.
“For our identity, for our freedom,” she said.
“For our right to live in the kind of Ukraine we want. Not the kind into which Putin and Russia wants to drive us to,” referring to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Ukraine’s current government is invoking the spirit of the 2014 protest movement to rally the nation as it faces a far graver threat — a crisis that, like the earlier one, stems from Moscow’s desire to keep Ukraine from drawing closer to the West.
President Volodymyr Zelensky, who visited the square Sunday, said the people who died gave their lives “for the right to live in an independent state, in the family of European nations.”
“Their feat is a testament to the steadfastness of Ukrainians who continue to fight for their future,” he said.
It was a decision by the president at the time, Viktor F. Yanukovych, not to sign an agreement that would have brought Ukraine closer to the European Union that spurred tens of thousands of people to take to the streets in late 2013. As the protests grew, Maidan square, in central Kyiv, became the focus of international attention — and, then, global shock at the killings.
The protesters, at great personal risk, persevered. For days, they tossed their tents, sleeping bags and endless numbers of tires onto a barrier of fire, hoping to ward off the security forces.
After the massacre in the square, Mr. Yanukovych negotiated a deal with French and German intermediaries to stay in power in exchange for a promise of early elections. But the protesters negotiated their own arrangement with midlevel security service commanders, who understood that Mr. Yanukovych intended to remain in power by blaming them for the shootings.
Under the deal, the police commanders vacated the city, escaping prosecution, but also leaving Mr. Yanukovych and his inner circle without police protection.
Mr. Yanukovych fled to Russia, and Ukraine’s Parliament voted to oust him from office. New elections were held. But Moscow soon responded. Its soldiers, insignia removed from their combat fatigues (Ukrainians referred to them as “little green men”), seized Crimea. And a Russia-backed separatist movement emerged in the eastern Donbas region, starting an armed conflict that has never stopped and is now rising sharply again.
Shelling rose significantly there on Saturday. Separatist leaders urged a mass evacuation to Russia and called men to arms — claiming, with no evidence, that Ukraine was planning a large-scale attack on territory they control.
Just as many Ukrainians in 2014 were stunned that a massacre could take place in their capital, some are finding it hard to accept that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine is possible. The idea that Russia is planning “the biggest war in Europe since 1945,” as Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain warned in a BBC interview this weekend, is something that many in Kyiv simply refuse to believe.
Mr. Zelensky also invoked the nation’s recent history on Saturday in Munich, when he called on Western leaders to place sanctions on Russia now, before an invasion takes place.
“Eight years ago,” he said, “Ukrainians made their choice, and many gave their lives for that choice.”
— Marc Santora and Maria Varenikova
PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron of France and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, spoke by telephone on Sunday and agreed on “the need to prioritize a diplomatic solution to the current crisis” and to secure a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine in the coming hours, according to a statement from Mr. Macron’s office.
The statement added that, “if the conditions are met,” a diplomatic path should allow the organization of “a meeting at the highest level in order to define a new peace and security order in Europe.”
The Kremlin, however, signaled little optimism. In a statement published after the call, it said Mr. Putin repeated his contention that Western countries were pushing Ukraine’s government to a “military solution” of its conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east.
The Ukrainian government in Kyiv insists that it has no plans to launch an offensive against the separatist territories, but separatist leaders over the weekend began an “evacuation” of women and children, claiming that such an offensive was imminent.
After his call with Mr. Putin, Mr. Macron spoke with Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, and praised his “composure” and “determination to prevent escalation.”
More specifically, the French and Russian presidents, who spoke for one hour and 45 minutes, agreed to resume diplomatic work within the Normandy Format talks — a negotiating channel that was created seven years ago by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine to resolve the regional conflict in eastern Ukraine. The French and Russian foreign ministers will also meet in the coming days.
The presidents also discussed various ways to quickly de-escalate the security crisis in and around Ukraine.
On Sunday, Belarus’s defense minister announced that Russia’s military deployment in Belarus as part of joint exercises would be extended, fueling fears that they could be used to invade Ukraine. But a senior official in Mr. Macron’s office, speaking on the condition of anonymity in keeping with French government practice, said that Mr. Putin told Mr. Macron that “these exercises would not be permanent” and that Russian troops would withdraw from Belarus at some point.
Mr. Macron’s office also said “intense work” would be implemented to enable a meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group, a group of officials from Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that has tried to facilitate a diplomatic way out of the war in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas.
The goal of this meeting, expected to be held Monday, is to “obtain a commitment from all the parties involved to a cease-fire” on the front line in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces.
Mr. Zelensky wrote on Twitter that he informed Mr. Macron during their call “about the current security situation and new provocative shelling.” Mr. Macron’s office said the call was part of his efforts “to maintain ways out of the crisis through dialogue and diplomacy.”
“The risk is high, our concern is strong, but we believe that the resources of diplomacy have not been exhausted,” the senior French official said.
Although the Kremlin said a “search for solutions through diplomatic means” should be intensified, it also “emphasized” that Kyiv is “stubbornly refusing to implement the Minsk agreements and agreements reached in the Normandy Format.”
Mr. Macron’s approach to the crisis so far has been to try to defuse it through intense dialogue with Mr. Putin. Sunday’s call was the fourth conversation between the two leaders regarding tensions on the Ukrainian border since mid-December, including Mr. Macron’s visit to Moscow this month. This approach initially led France not to express excessive alarm at the possibility of an invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces.
But faced with the Russian buildup on the Ukrainian border, France’s stance has shifted slightly in recent days. On Saturday, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, said in a statement that “the acts and the words of Russia do not align” and warned Russia against “any further violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
The same day, the French Foreign Ministry updated its recommendations for travelers to Ukraine and urged all French nationals staying there with no compelling reason “to leave the country.” It also advised French citizens to postpone any trip to Ukraine.
Unlike the United States, France has kept open its embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. “We stay in Kyiv,” the French ambassador to Ukraine wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
Anton Troianovski contributed reporting.
TAGANROG, Russia — Lyudmila V. Ladnik fled her home in eastern Ukraine fearing that rising tensions could force her back into a bomb shelter like the one she took cover in seven years ago, when her town of Debaltsevo was shelled during fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists.
But once she crossed into Russia on Sunday, part of a growing evacuation ordered by separatist leaders, she already wanted to go back.
“They lied to us,” fumed Ms. Ladnik, 62, referring to Russian authorities. She said she had been told that residents of the separatist areas would stay temporarily in Rostov, but on Sunday she learned that they would be moved farther inside Russia, to a town such as Kursk. With dismay, she wondered whether her evacuation to Russia would be longer than she had expected.
“We are now calling everyone back home, telling them to stay,” she said.
Confusion reigned on Sunday as more people crossed into Russia following a warning from Kremlin-backed rebel leaders that Ukraine was about to launch an attack on the separatist areas. The government in Kyiv has denied any such plans, and rebel leaders have produced no evidence to support their claim. The United States has said the warnings could be part of a Russian propaganda campaign to justify a military intervention by Moscow.
The situation in Ukraine’s east has escalated rapidly over the past week, with both the Ukrainian government and the Russia-backed rebels trading accusations of artillery fire in violation of cease-fire agreements.
While Russia has tried to portray the flow of refugees as proof of Ukraine’s menacing posture, the people who passed through the train station in Taganrog, a Russian city perched on the Azov Sea near the border with Ukraine, appeared helpless, frightened by the warnings of more violence but uncertain about what lay ahead. The commander of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in a statement that refugees were being “used to escalate the situation in order to provoke another round of bloodshed.”
Ms. Ladnik was one of a few hundred people who boarded a train in Taganrog on Sunday, bound for deep inside Russia. Mothers dragged their children, and older people carried heavy suitcases into train cars.
They did not know their destination, and rumors spread. Some whispered that it might be Nizhny Novgorod in central Russia, others were less certain. Some disembarked the train once they learned that it could take them far away, afraid that they would not be able to afford a trip back, despite promises by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to pay them each about $130.
Vika Zubchenko, 27, decided to rely on her own resources. She and her sister-in-law Yelena Sayakina, 45, rented a house in Taganrog for two weeks. Her husband had to stay in their town of Debaltsevo, barred from leaving by the separatist authorities who called a mass mobilization of men of military age.
Ms. Zubchenko said that she was mostly spooked by the panic at home, in the eastern Ukraine region of Donetsk.
“Stores there are already out of batteries and candles,” said Ms. Zubchenko, expressing a common emotion among people coming from Ukraine’s breakaway lands who lived through heavy fighting in 2014 and 2015. Many who fled this time said they were concerned about their children.
“In 2015, I didn’t have her,” Ms. Zubchenko said, pointing at her 5-year-old daughter Alisa.
For weeks, as Russia sent more and more troops to Ukraine’s borders, the Biden administration has predicted that President Vladimir V. Putin would orchestrate some sort of pretext for an invasion, probably in Ukraine’s east, where a conflict with Moscow-backed rebels has been underway for years.
Now, developments there — driven in large part by the separatists widely seen as Russia’s proxies — could be giving him such an opportunity.
On Saturday, artillery fire escalated sharply in the east, and thousands of residents fled to Russia in chaotic evacuations, fueled by rebel leaders’ assertions, without evidence, that Ukraine’s military was planning a large-scale attack on the territory they control.
Western leaders have scoffed at the idea that Ukraine would launch such an operation while surrounded by Russian forces, and Ukrainian officials dismissed the claim as “a cynical Russian lie.” But the ginned-up panic was having real effects, with refugees frantically boarding buses and refugee tent camps popping up across the Russian border. Separatists urged women and children to leave and told men to register to fight.
In Moscow, Mr. Putin engaged in a dramatic display of military theater, presiding over tests of nuclear-capable missiles. Tensions between the United States and Russia have not been this high since the Cold War, and Russia’s nuclear drills appeared carefully timed to deter the West from direct military involvement in Ukraine.
Western leaders gathering in Munich, where a security conference ends Sunday, issued repeated calls for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, despite President Biden’s claim on Friday that Mr. Putin had already decided to invade.
But in Ukraine, the fighting edged perilously closer to a tipping point.
The firing of mortars, artillery and rocket-propelled grenades by separatist rebels along the front line roughly doubled the level of the previous two days, the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs said. Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and five wounded, the military said.
Ukrainian officials said the shelling came exclusively from the separatists, who are seen as a proxy for Russia. New York Times reporters at the scene witnessed shelling from separatists and saw no return fire from the Ukrainian forces, although residents in the separatist regions said there was shelling from both sides.
“I have a small baby,” said Nadya Lapygina, who said her town in the breakaway region of Luhansk was hit by artillery and mortar fire. “You have no idea how scary it is to hide him from the shelling.”
Intense artillery barrages targeted a pocket of government-controlled territory around the town of Svitlodarsk, a spot that has worried security analysts for weeks for its proximity to dangerous industrial infrastructure, including storage tanks for poisonous gas.
A stray shell from returning government fire risks hitting a chemical plant about six miles away in separatist-controlled territory. The plant, one of Europe’s largest fertilizer factories, has pressurized tanks and more than 12 miles of pipelines holding poisonous ammonia gas.
An explosion there could produce a toxic cloud that could serve as an excuse for a Russian invasion or, American officials have warned, Russia could stage its own explosion there to justify intervention.
The feeling that Russia and the United States are entering a new version of the Cold War has become inescapable.
President Biden hinted at it on Tuesday in the East Room of the White House, pledging that if Russia invaded Ukraine, “we will rally the world to oppose its aggression.” President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia drove the matter home on Saturday, when he oversaw a test launch of nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles that can evade American defenses.
“We are entering a new stage of confrontation,” said Dmitry Suslov, an international relations specialist at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “After this crisis, we will naturally be much more explicit and open in acknowledging that we are enemies, we are adversaries, with all the ensuing consequences.”
For now, no one knows just how the world will emerge from the crisis — whether Mr. Putin is staging an elaborate, expensive bluff or is truly on the verge of launching the biggest military offensive in Europe since 1945. But it does appear clear that Mr. Putin’s overarching aim is to revise the outcome of the original Cold War, even if it is at the cost of deepening a new one.
MUNICH — In an appeal that was at times bitterly critical of the West, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine urged allies on Saturday to begin imposing sanctions on Russia now rather than wait for an invasion, and he took aim at repeated American declarations that an attack would happen within days.
“What are you waiting for?” Mr. Zelensky asked a large audience at the annual meeting of the Munich Security Conference, which he attended despite warnings that his absence from Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, could give Russia an opportunity to strike. “We don’t need your sanctions after” the economy collapses and “parts of our country will be occupied.”
By turns grateful for allied unity and frustrated by its apparent ineffectiveness, Mr. Zelensky described Europe’s security architecture as “brittle,” even “obsolete,” as he portrayed the plight of his country since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
He was emphatic that no deal to avert the crisis should be struck with Russia that did not include his country.
“It’s important for all our partners and friends to not agree about anything behind our back,” he said. “We’re not panicking. We’re very consistent that we are not responding to any provocation.”
Mr. Zelensky’s remarks contrasted with Vice President Kamala Harris’s portrayal earlier in the day of a united and vigorous NATO alliance that had shown its resolve at a time when Europe’s security was under “direct threat.”
A key element of the West’s strategy has been to expose Russian plans, and to make public their intelligence estimates about when Russian forces are expected to move across the Ukrainian border. But Mr. Zelensky argued that the daily predictions of an imminent invasion, most recently from President Biden on Friday, were scaring off investors, “crushing” the national currency, and terrorizing his population.
“Just putting ourselves in coffins and waiting for foreign soldiers to come in is not something we are prepared to do,” he said. “We cannot say on a daily basis that war will happen tomorrow.”
Mr. Zelensky carefully navigated around one of the central complaints from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia: that NATO would not give a “written guarantee” that it would never let Ukraine into the Western alliance. Mr. Zelensky made clear he would not back down on seeking membership, but blamed the West for foot-dragging on Ukraine’s interest in joining.
“We are told the doors are open,” Mr. Zelensky said, referring to NATO. “But so far, the strangers are not allowed. If not all members are willing to see us, or all members do not want to see us there, be honest about it. Open doors are good, but we need open answers.”
Ukraine, he added, does not need “years and years of closed questions” from NATO.
Mr. Zelensky repeatedly said he wanted to meet Mr. Putin, who has been curtly dismissive of that possibility and indeed of the entire Ukrainian government. Mr. Putin has made clear that he views Ukraine as part of Russia, or at least that the two countries form one “historical and spiritual space,” as he put it in a 5,000-word disquisition on “the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians” published last summer.
Mr. Zelensky sounded bitter as he portrayed the West as having failed to live up to the commitments it made in 1994, when it offered vague security guarantees in return for Ukraine’s decision to give up a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. The weapons had been left in silos on Ukrainian territory after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
When Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, he said, the signatories of the 1994 agreement, called the “Budapest Memorandum,” pretended it did not exist. “We have lost parts of our territory which are bigger in territory than Switzerland, Netherlands or Belgium.”
“We will protect our country,” Mr. Zelensky said, “with or without support.”
Appealing for calm, he said he had enjoyed breakfast in Kyiv and intended to be back home in time for dinner.
In a speech at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine criticized Western countries for not living up to promises they made when the Soviet Union fell, when they persuaded Ukraine to give up what was then the world’s third largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.
“Ukraine has received security guarantees for abandoning the world’s third nuclear capability,” Mr. Zelensky said. “We don’t have that weapon. We also have no security.”
At the end of the Cold War, only Russia and the United States had more nuclear weapons. The Soviet collapse, a slow-motion downfall that culminated in December 1991, resulted in the newly independent Ukraine inheriting roughly 5,000 nuclear arms that Moscow had stationed on its soil. Underground silos on its military bases held long-range missiles that carried up to 10 thermonuclear warheads, each far stronger than the bomb that leveled Hiroshima.
The removal of this arsenal often gets hailed as a triumph of arms control. Diplomats and peace activists cast Ukraine as a model citizen in a world of would-be nuclear powers.
But history shows the denuclearization to have been a chaotic upheaval that shook with infighting, reversals and discord among the country’s government and military. At the time, both Ukrainian and American experts questioned the wisdom of atomic disarmament. The deadly weapons, some argued, were the only reliable means of deterring Russian aggression.
Today, Ukraine has no easy path to producing or acquiring the materials to build a bomb. Even so, the nuclear genie is once again stirring as Russian troops encircle the nation and wage a shadow war in its easternmost provinces.
“We gave away the capability for nothing,” said Andriy Zahorodniuk, a former defense minister of Ukraine. Referring to the security assurances Ukraine won in exchange for its nuclear arms, he added: “Now, every time somebody offers us to sign a strip of paper, the response is, ‘Thank you very much. We already had one of those some time ago.’”
Russia has issued a growing drumbeat of accusations against the Ukrainian government, all without evidence, that center on a single word: genocide.
“What is happening in the Donbas today is genocide,” President Vladimir V. Putin said last week, referring to the region in Ukraine’s east where a conflict with separatists has been underway for years.
Senior Russian officials and state media have since echoed Mr. Putin’s use of the word. Russian diplomats circulated a document to the United Nations Security Council accusing Ukraine of “exterminating the civilian population” in its east.
The Kremlin has long asserted that Ukraine’s government persecutes ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking citizens. The charge, backed by lurid and false tales of anti-Russian violence, was used as justification in 2014 for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its invasion of eastern Ukraine.
The recent resurgence of such language, now voiced directly by Mr. Putin, indicates what analysts and Western governments say may again be a prelude to invasion.
But invocations of genocide represent more than just a superficial casus belli. They reflect Moscow’s belief that, in a world dominated by a hostile West, it is the rightful protector of Russian populations throughout the former Soviet republics.
In that worldview, any break from Moscow’s influence within its sphere constitutes an attack on the Russian people as a whole — particularly in Ukraine, which Mr. Putin considers effectively Russian.
Claims of genocide, then, are a way to assert Russia’s sovereignty throughout an ethnic Russian empire that extends well beyond its formal borders — and a right to control that empire with force. “There’s a long history of use and abuse of genocide rhetoric in post-Soviet countries,” said Matthew Kupfer, a Kyiv-based analyst who has studied Moscow’s use of such claims.
The United States now believes that Russia has as many as 190,000 troops in or near Ukraine, nearly twice as many as there were in January, according to an assessment made public on Friday by Michael Carpenter, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
That was a significantly higher number than the 150,000 troops President Biden referred to earlier this week, and the 100,000 in January.
But American officials said the new number includes some forces that were not previously counted — most notably Russian forces in Crimea, as well as separatist forces led by Russian military officers in the Donbas region, a portion of eastern Ukraine they have controlled since 2014. The officials did not provide a breakdown of these forces.
The new number also includes some additional forces that have moved into Belarus, according to American officials briefed on the intelligence. And the combat forces have increased, according to a defense official. There are now between 120 and 125 battalion tactical groups, up from 83 earlier in February.
Counting Russian forces is an imprecise science. The size of Russian battalions can vary, depending on their role. And while Russia has taken fewer pains to hide the movement of troops in recent weeks, moving units during the day rather than at night, the United States has not detected all of Russia’s combat preparations, officials said.
Russia has also, according to outside analysts, blocked some means of monitoring Russian rail traffic, which had been used to count forces flowing to and from the Ukrainian border.
A U.S. defense official said that as many as 75,000 of the Russian forces outside of Ukraine were in combat formations, ready to mount a full-scale invasion in days.
U.S. and allied officials have been divided on whether Russia intends an invasion aimed at occupying a wide swathe of the country, or if it wants simply to solidify its control in the Donbas region. But the defense official said that within the Russian forces outside Ukraine’s borders are reservist units, the kinds of forces that would be tasked not with taking new territory but with conducting occupation operations. And even as Russia has made a show of pulling back some forces, it has pushed other forces closer to the border.
Thomas Bullock, a senior open-source intelligence analyst with Jane’s, said Russia had moved air defense systems, long-range artillery and army units to sites about 18 miles from Ukraine’s borders in recent days, particularly in the area where the borders of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia converge.
“It’s very difficult to hide at this stage because the world is watching and they are moving a lot of equipment in,” Mr. Bullock said.
MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Paramilitary groups are actively preparing for a Russian invasion near Ukraine’s front line with Russia-backed separatists.
The Ukrainian government insists that independent armed groups have no part in its war in the east, and that these fighters don’t exist there. But New York Times journalists recently contacted three paramilitary groups that claim to operate near the front line of the conflict, and one agreed to be filmed this month. Watch the full video.