Pro-Russian separatists living in Ukraine said Friday they have started evacuating civilians as fighting intensifies amid the potential for a Russian invasion.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris make new efforts to stem the crisis.
Denis Pushilin, head of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, announced the evacuation. He claimed — without evidence — that Ukrainian leaders were planning a military assault on the region, home to a sizable contingent of pro-Russia separatists.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, denied the claim. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and NATO leaders have said intelligence indicates Russia has been working to plan a “false flag” operation as a pretext for invasion.
Biden will hold talks with other Western leaders Friday about the crisis, and Harris traveled to a security conference Germany in one of her most challenging visits abroad.
At the Munich Security Conference, Ukraine was the main topic of discussion.
“Right now, we are obviously dealing with the concern about what is happening in Ukraine,” Harris said after a bilateral meeting in Munich with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
“As a member of NATO, we feel very strongly and will always be committed to the principle of territorial integrity and sovereignty.
“We remain, of course, open to and desirous of diplomacy as it relates to the dialogue and the discussions we have had with Russia. But we are also committed, if Russia takes aggressive action, to ensuring there will be severe consequence in terms of the economic sanctions we have discussed. And we know the alliance is strong in that regard.”
Stoltenberg said he’s been impressed with the American troops that have been sent to Europe as part of NATO’s support mission for Ukraine. Biden has sent a few thousand to Poland, Romania and other nations.
“To have … more U.S. troops in Europe now, in this critical time for our security, really demonstrates the North American and the U.S. commitment to our shared security,” he said in a joint news conference with Harris.
“North America and Europe are doing more together now than have done for many years,” he added.
“That’s important to deal with the aggressive actions of Russia, but also to address a more competitive world, the security consequences of the rise of China. We have to stand together in North America and Europe.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who took the United States’ side of the controversy to the United Nations on Thursday, was also at the conference.
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