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Self-declared separatist republics in eastern Ukraine announce mass evacuations, alleging imminent offensive by Kyiv

In a video address shared on February 18, the head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) in eastern Ukraine announced the start of “a mass, centralized departure of the population to the Russian Federation” due to growing tensions in the region and a supposedly imminent attack from Ukrainian government troops:

First and foremost, women, children, and the elderly are subject to evacuation… By agreement with the leadership of the Russian Federation, shelters and accommodation sites in the Rostov region are ready for our citizens. Evacuees will be provided with all necessities. Everything has been prepared at checkpoints for a quick relocation.

Following Denis Pushilin’s announcement, the head of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic, Leonid Pasechnik, also called on civilians to relocate to Russian territory to escape a supposedly imminent Ukrainian military offensive.

Update: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Friday that he was unaware of evacuation plans in the Donbas. “I don’t know what’s going on with Pushilin. I don’t know what’s happening over there,” he said. Similarly, regional officials in Rostov told that they received no information about an incoming wave of refugees and have made no preparations to receive evacuees.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, meanwhile, has denied any plans to conduct “offensive operations or acts of sabotage” in the Donbas:

On the heels of these announcements, the Russian ruble fell sharply against the U.S. dollar, hitting an exchange rate of 76.24 rubles per dollar as of 4:32 p.m., Moscow time.

In recent days, tensions in the Donbas have escalated as large numbers of Russian troops have continued to assemble near the border with Ukraine. Between February 16 and 17, observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe recorded roughly 500 explosions near the so-called “line of contact” between government forces and Russia-backed separatists. This is several times more than in previous days. A source in the DNR’s parliament told the news agency Interfax that the evacuation will likely include several hundred thousand people.

On February 15, lawmakers in Russia’s State Duma adopted a resolution appealing to President Putin to recognize the independence of the separatist “republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk. In response, Putin said his preferred path in the Donbas is implementing the “not yet fully realized opportunities” of the Minsk agreements, which would restore Ukrainian control over the two breakaway regions and their borders with Russia after political reforms to Ukraine itself. The Kremlin has said recognizing the separatists would violate the Minsk agreements.

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