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U.S. says a separatist call to flee east Ukraine for Russia is a false flag

Denis Pushilin, the leader of the Donetsk People's Republic controlled by Russia-backed separatists, speaks to journalists during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Donetsk, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)
Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, an area controlled by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, speaks to journalists on May 5, 2021.

Updated February 18, 2022 at 3:52 PM ET

A Russian-backed separatist leader in eastern Ukraine announced an evacuation of the city of Donetsk to Russia, alleging the Ukrainian military was preparing to invade the area. The U.S. government considers the announcement part of a lying tactic in the lead-up to a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.In a video message posted on social media Friday, Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk rebel government, ordered "a mass centralized departure of the population to the Russian Federation."Pushilin alleged a Ukrainian buildup of forces and weaponry, including U.S.-provided advanced weapons like Javelin antitank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, was the reason for the evacuation. "The armed forces of the enemy are in combat formations and are ready for the forceful capture of Donbas. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy will soon issue a decree to the military to go on the offensive and implement a plan for the invasion of the territory," he said.NPR downloaded the video posted to Pushilin's Telegram messaging app account and verified, based on the metadata, that the video appears to be filmed on Wednesday.The remarks came as the U.S. and NATO allies pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull his troops back from Ukraine. Russia denies planning an invasion of Ukraine and says it sent some of its personnel back to their regular barracks. But the U.S. believes Russia has massed between 169,000 and 190,000 military personnel in and around Ukraine and could invade the country at any moment.A U.S. official rejected Pushilin's claims about a planned Ukrainian military operation in comments to NPR."Announcements like these are further attempts to obscure through lies and disinformation that Russia is the aggressor in this conflict," a State Department official said on condition of anonymity. "This type of false flag operation is exactly what Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken highlighted in his remarks to the U.N. Security Council," the official said, referring to Blinken's address on Thursday."It is also cynical and cruel to use human beings as pawns to distract the world from the fact that Russia is building up its forces in preparation for an attack," the State Department official said.Pushilin is head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, an internationally unrecognized territory carved out by Russian-backed separatists after fighting broke out with Ukrainian government forces in 2014.In recent days, Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed rebels in the country's eastern Donbas region have traded fresh accusations of shelling and other cease-fire violations.On Friday, Russian state media said there was a car explosion near the main government building in Donetsk; no casualties were reported.The Russian Defense Ministry also announced large drills of its strategic nuclear forces this weekend.Later on Friday, the White House said it believes the Russian government was responsible for recent denial-of-service attacks on Ukrainian Defense Ministry websites and banking systems.Joanna Kakissis and Monika Evstatieva contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine; Charles Maynes from Moscow and Michele Kelemen and Jenna McGlaughlin from Washington, D.C. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.