Ukraine crisis: U.S. believes Putin ‘poised to strike,’ Russia conducts nuclear drills | amNewYork

 Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda and U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin pose for media in Vilnius, Lithuania February 19, 2022. REUTERS/Janis Laizans

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched exercises by strategic nuclear missile forces on Saturday and Washington said Russian troops massed near Ukraine’s border were “poised to strike.”

As Western nations fear the start of one the worst conflicts since the Cold War, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Russian forces were beginning to “uncoil and move closer” to the border with its former Soviet neighbor.

“We hope he steps back from the brink of conflict,” he told a news conference on a visit to Lithuania, saying an invasion of Ukraine was not inevitable.

Russia ordered the military build-up while demanding NATO stop Ukraine ever joining the alliance but says predictions it is planning to invade Ukraine are wrong and dangerous. It says it is now pulling back while Washington and allies insist the build-up is mounting.

Russian-backed separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine earlier declared a full military mobilization, a day after ordering women and children to evacuate to Russia, citing the threat of an imminent attack by Ukrainian forces.

Kyiv flatly denied the accusation and both it and Washington say increased shelling across the ceasefire line this week is part of Russia’s plan to create a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine.

Moscow said on Saturday a Ukrainian shell had exploded inside Russia and Russian news agencies later cited an unnamed source reporting a second.

Multiple explosions could be heard on Saturday morning in the north of the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, as more people got on buses to leave, a Reuters witness said. The origin was not immediately clear. Ukraine said earlier that one of its soldiers had been killed.

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