Russia is escalating its military activity as Western officials are increasingly certain Russian President Vladimir Putin will launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the coming days.
The Russian military on Friday announced military drills involving the country's strategic nuclear forces, which will be personally overseen by Putin on Saturday, the Associated Press reports.
The exercises will involve multiple practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, the Defense Ministry said.
Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for the Kremlin, said Putin would watch the drills from the Defense Ministry's situation room and supervise the practice missile launches in person.
Russia claims these exercises have been planned well in advance and are intended to check the readiness of Russia's military command and personnel, as well as the reliability of its nuclear and conventional weapons.
But the exercises are being conducted as Russia has placed an estimated 150,000 troops along the border with Ukraine. President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have indicated an invasion of Ukraine is imminent and have attempted to dissuade Putin from war through diplomacy and by threatening severe economic sanctions.
Moscow continues to deny it has plans to invade. But Russia has demanded that the U.S. and NATO withdraw their forces from Eastern Europe and make legally binding commitments that Ukraine will not become a NATO member, demands that have been rebuffed by Washington and Brussels.
The location of the nuclear drills is significant. According to the AP, the maneuvers will involve the Black Sea Fleet based on the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
While Russia holds annual strategic forces drills in the fall, U.S. officials say Moscow may have shifted the exercises to February to coincide with an invasion of Ukraine.
Officials also warn that the Russians are trying to execute a false flag operation to serve as a pretext to invade.
Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia separatists are engaged in a second day of shelling after a kindergarten was hit by separatist artillery on Thursday. Western leaders warn that Russia may use the infighting in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region as an excuse to invade.
"Ukraine is not your enemy, but those who want to defend you against Ukraine are. Do not heed rumours about some offensive operation," Ukraine's defense minister said in a speech Friday, addressing the rebel faction. "We have no intentions to conduct any force actions towards the ORDLO (Donbas) or the Crimea. At all. We will move by the political and diplomatic way. Because there are our citizens and we will not put them in danger."
While Russia has claimed it is moving troops away from the border with Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Friday there is no evidence to support Russia's claim.
"Although Russia has announced it is moving its forces back to garrison, we have yet to see that. In fact, we see more forces moving into that region, that border region," Austin said at a press conference. "We also see them going through, continuing to prepare, by doing things you'd expect elements — military elements — to do as they were preparing to launch an attack."
President Joe Biden is scheduled to speak at 4 p.m. ET on Friday on the evolving situation in Eastern Europe.