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Mass evacuations raise fears of a major event looming in eastern Ukraine

Source: Meduza
Alexander Ermochenko

Eastern Ukraine’s Russia-backed separatists have announced mass evacuations, urging women, children, and the elderly to relocate to Russia. Denis Pushilin, the head of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), explained that refugees would receive all the basic necessities at shelters ready and waiting in Russia’s Rostov region (though the governor there later revealed that he had no knowledge of an incoming wave of evacuees). After Pushilin’s public address, sirens sounded in Donetsk, and residents formed long lines at ATMs throughout the city.

Shortly after Pushilin’s statement, the head of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), Leonid Pasechnik, also announced a mass evacuation, urging all non-essential workers and residents who have not been called to arms to relocate temporarily to Russia.

The governor of Russia’s Rostov region appealed to President Putin for emergency support. The president promptly dispatched acting Emergency Management Agency head Aleksander Chupriyan to the region to organize accommodations for incoming refugees. Putin also ordered the Russian government to pay 10,000 rubles ($130) to each evacuee arriving from the Donbas. A source in the Rostov governor’s office told that temporary lodgings will be made available to as many as 15,000 refugees, though separatist officials in the Donbas say upwards of 700,000 evacuees will relocate to Russia.

Separatists say rising tensions in the region necessitate the evacuations. In recent months, the DNR says it’s observed “an increase in the number of Ukrainian military personnel and lethal weapons” assembled beyond its contested boundaries. According to Denis Pushilin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “will order the military in the near future to go on the offensive.” Leonid Pasechnik, in turn, claimed that “the Ukrainian aggressor” plans to stage provocations along the line of contact between the two sides and “penetrate deep” into LNR territory. Pasechnik called on all men “who can wield a weapon” to take up arms and “defend their land.”

Several hours after his initial announcement, Pasechnik said in a new speech that “things are approaching full-scale war” and speculated that refugees pouring into Russia could number in the hundreds of thousands.

Ukrainian officials deny any plans to attack the Donbas. “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,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter. In a statement shared on Facebook, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Lieutenant General Valerii Zaluzhnyi denied the claims by the “leaders of the occupation administrations.” At the time of this writing, President Zelensky had not commented on these developments.

Buses loaded with civilians began leaving the Donbas on the evening of February 18, according to the news agency Interfax. The first convoy reportedly carried 225 orphans from a children’s home in Donetsk. Local officials instructed evacuees to pack their house keys, money, mobile devices with chargers and external batteries, personal hygiene products, clothes, and necessary medicines. Separatist authorities also announced evacuations in the city of Yasynuvata.

Spokespeople for the LNR say evacuations will begin in settlements nearest to the line of contact with Ukrainian government troops. The separatist republic’s Education Ministry also suspended all classroom instruction and announced the evacuation of the region’s orphanages and boarding schools. At the time of this writing, however, transportation officials in Russia’s Rostov region said not a single bus carrying refugees had yet arrived from the Donbas.

An explosion occurred outside the main government building in Donetsk. People's Militia Chief Denis Sinenkov told Interfax that a parked car exploded, but no one was injured.

The ruble fell sharply against the dollar and euro, following the evacuation news. By 7:00 p.m., Moscow time, the U.S. dollar rose by 67.25 kopecks to an exchange rate of 76.96 rubles to $1. The euro rose by 69.75 kopecks to 87.27 rubles per one euro. Also, the Moscow Exchange Index fell 3.4 percent and the RTS Index dropped 4.1 percent.

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