Russia has conducted missile test launches as the United States warns Moscow that it is “ready” to invade Ukraine

Russia tested nuclear-fired missiles on Saturday as President Vladimir Putin watched dramatic military exercises and when the United States again warned it believed Moscow planned to invade Ukraine within days.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived in Germany to enlist the support of Western allies, despite a significant increase in shelling in the east of the country, which killed a Ukrainian soldier.

Harsh U.S. warnings and the evacuation of civilians from Russian-backed rebel regions of Ukraine have brought fears of a major conflict in Europe to a peak after weeks of tensions.

The Kremlin insists it has no plans to attack its neighbor, which has angered Moscow by seeking closer ties with NATO and the European Union.

But Moscow is doing nothing to allay fears, with state media accusing Kyiv of plotting to attack a rebel-controlled pro-Russian enclave in eastern Ukraine.

Russian television has shown images of Putin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko sitting at a roundtable in the Kremlin’s situation hall in front of many screens showing military commanders testing their latest hypersonic, cruise and ballistic missiles with nuclear capabilities.

“All missiles hit their targets, confirming their mission,” the Kremlin said, adding that the exercise included bombers and Tu-95 submarines.

Earlier, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov referred to the codes of the nuclear launch.

“Such test launches are, of course, impossible without the head of state. You know about the famous black suitcase and the red button, ”he said.

“Ready to strike”
Russia’s Defense Ministry said that the exercises involved almost all branches of the armed forces, including strategic missile forces, as well as the Northern and Black Sea Fleets, which have nuclear submarines.

The United States insists that with about 150,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders – as many as 190,000, given the Russian-backed separatist forces in the east – Moscow has already decided to invade.

Some of the Russian military, about 30,000, are in Belarus for an exercise that is due to end on Sunday. Moscow has said the forces will return to the barracks, but U.S. intelligence is concerned that they may take part in the invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden said Friday that he is confident Putin has called for an invasion, despite warnings that it would trigger huge Western sanctions, and the attack could happen in the coming days with targets that include the capital, Kyiv.

On Saturday, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, visiting NATO ally Lithuania, said that Russian forces “are now ready to strike” and “move to the right positions to be able to carry out the attack.”

In recent days, Russia has announced a series of withdrawals of troops from Ukraine, saying they are participating in regular military exercises, and accusing the West of “hysteria” with statements about an invasion plan.

But Putin has also stepped up his rhetoric, demanding written assurances that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and that a US-led military alliance will undo its position in Eastern Europe decades ago.

A sharp increase in the number of collisions
On the volatile front line between the Ukrainian army and separatists in the Moscow-backed separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, there has been a “sharp rise” in ceasefire violations, OSCE international observers have said.

Hundreds of artillery and mortar shellings have been reported in recent days in the eight-year conflict, which has killed more than 14,000 people.

The Ukrainian Armed Forces accused the rebels of a big new wave of attacks on Saturday, saying dozens of shootings had taken place by 7 a.m. (4 p.m. GMT), and one soldier had died from shrapnel wounds.

The soldier, an intelligence captain, became the fourth Ukrainian soldier to die in the first seven weeks of this year. According to official sources, in 2021 at least 66 people were killed.

The rebels, who also accused Ukrainian forces of new attacks on Saturday, announced a general mobilization in the two regions, urging men to fight, even as they announced the mass evacuation of women and children to Russia.

The governor of the neighboring Russian region of the Rostov region has declared a state of emergency, as the first buses of several thousand people crossed the border, and then the film crews of Russian state media.

Moscow and the rebels have accused Kyiv of planning an assault to reclaim the regions, statements that Ukraine vehemently denies and rejects the West as part of Russia’s efforts to lay the groundwork for war.

Russia’s Investigative Committee, which is investigating major crimes, said it had launched an investigation into media reports that a shell fired by Ukrainian forces had exploded about a kilometer across the border in Russia’s Rostov region.

Earlier, Russian news agencies, citing anonymous sources, said the shell hit the region, but did not cause injuries or damage.

Despite warnings of the invasion, Zelensky’s office said it would not change plans to personally attend Saturday’s Munich Security Conference.

“Vladimir Zelensky is waiting for concrete agreements on providing our country with additional military and financial support,” his office said, adding that he would return to Kyiv later on Saturday. Russia has conducted missile test launches as the United States warns Moscow that it is “ready” to invade Ukraine

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