Pro-Russia forces commit 'false flag' op, shelling from civilian areas - Ukraine MoD

"In the absence of any aggressive action by Ukrainian defenders, the invaders themselves blow up infrastructure facilities in the occupied territories and carry out chaotic shelling of settlements."

Service members of the 92nd Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces hold artillery drills at a shooting range in an unknown location in eastern Ukraine, in this handout picture released December 17, 2021. (photo credit: PRESS SERVICE OF THE 92ND SEPARATE MECHANIZED BRIGADE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Service members of the 92nd Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces hold artillery drills at a shooting range in an unknown location in eastern Ukraine, in this handout picture released December 17, 2021.
(photo credit: PRESS SERVICE OF THE 92ND SEPARATE MECHANIZED BRIGADE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Pro-Russian forces are destroying civilian infrastructure and claiming that the damage is caused by Ukrainian military artillery strikes, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said on Monday.

False Flag operation

The ministry said that on Sunday night, pro-Russian militias had carried out a "provocation" to incriminate Ukrainian forces. 

"In the absence of any aggressive action by Ukrainian defenders, the invaders themselves blow up infrastructure facilities in the occupied territories and carry out chaotic shelling of settlements," the Defense Ministry statement said. "It is obvious that the enemy continues to use its propaganda methods of waging information warfare in order to accuse the Armed Forces of Ukraine and escalate the situation."

This allegation comes on the heels of other serious accusations about anti-Ukrainian government militias firing heavy weapons from residential areas and endangering civilian populations in order to provoke Ukraine, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on Saturday.

"The command of the Russian occupation forces allocates artillery and armed vehicles among residential buildings and from there, shells our localities," Reznikov said at the Munich security conference. "It is the behavior of criminals who provoke us to make mistakes." 

A self-propelled howitzer fires during artillery drills held by the 92nd Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces at a shooting range in an unknown location in eastern Ukraine, in this handout picture released December 17, 2021. (credit: PRESS SERVICE OF THE 92ND SEPARATE MECHANIZED BRIGADE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)A self-propelled howitzer fires during artillery drills held by the 92nd Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces at a shooting range in an unknown location in eastern Ukraine, in this handout picture released December 17, 2021. (credit: PRESS SERVICE OF THE 92ND SEPARATE MECHANIZED BRIGADE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Exchanges in artillery and mortar fire

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said on Saturday that there had been an escalation in shelling between the forces over the last five days. Since February 17, there have been almost 200 incidents of aggression using artillery, mortars, and other heavy weapons against Ukrainian positions. Ukrainian forces suffered one injury as a result of the attacks. 

"While shelling Ukrainian educational facilities and residential buildings, the Russian mercenaries at the same time are spreading information about alleged offensive operation of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on the temporarily occupied territories," ministry stated on Friday. "This is disinformation."

"The situation on the line of contact remains critical. Armed formations of Ukraine continue to conduct intensive shelling of civilian infrastructure and facilities of our Republic," the separatist People's Militia of the Donetsk People's Republic said in a statement on Sunday. They claimed that 527 shells, mortars and grenades had been fired into their territory during the recent exchanges.

"In order to protect the civilian population, our defenders were forced to return fire from weapons not prohibited by the Minsk agreements, suppressing enemy firing positions," said the pro-Russian militia.

On Monday, Russian-backed rebels in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic said two civilians were killed in shelling by Kyiv government forces, Russia's RIA news agency reported. The shelling occurred late on Sunday.

Information warfare

At the Munich security conference, Reznikov also warned on Saturday about a campaign of Russian propaganda that was trying to discredit the operations of his forces. 

"The information sphere is now filled with fakes that reveal the true intentions of the Russian side," Reznikov said on Friday, accusing "Russian puppets" of intimidating the local population and calling for evacuations. 

"Yesterday, Russian propaganda spread a blatant lie about the shelling of Stanytsa Luhanska, which we quickly refuted," the minister also said on Friday.

"Today they invented another fake about some sabotage groups, which allegedly were going to arrange a chemical attack in Horlivka. They even shot a staged video. But as for themselves, they fired at the UN humanitarian mission at the entry checkpoint," he said.

"This is something that our partners and we have repeatedly warned about — the Russian side is preparing various stagings to justify their crimes," the defense minister said. "This is a manifestation of information warfare. I appeal to the citizens once again — do not believe in fakes and do not be afraid."

Russia's Investigative Committee claimed on February 16 that mass graves of hundreds of Russian-speaking civilians had been found in the Donbas region, with Russian President Vladimir Putin stating the day prior that "what is happening in the Donbas is genocide."

On February 15, the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic claimed that Ukraine's Defense Ministry could have placed an IED at the planned location for a rally for the Russian Memorial Day of soldiers-internationalists, which commemorates soldiers who fell while operating abroad.

"The whole flow of fakes produced by Russian propaganda has no effect. Nobody believes them," Reznikov said on Saturday. 

Reznikov said on Saturday that "the whole flow of fakes produced by Russian propaganda has no effect. Nobody believes them. This morning, regular portions of lies and new videos about fictional events were thrown in. The accumulation of this nonsense only convinces everyone that Ukraine is defending itself from a vicious aggressor who is willing to sacrifice women and children to destroy peace."

Will Russia invade Ukraine soon?

Reznikov called the newest flare-up in an eight-year war between Kyiv and Russian-backed rebels "a clash of civilizations." Russia, which has massed over 100,000 troops near Ukraine's borders, says it is concerned about the increase in hostilities.

Reuters reported on Monday that satellite images show multiple new field deployments of armored equipment and troops from Russian garrisons near the border with Ukraine. The images were released by US-based Maxar Technologies, a private American company, whose director said indicated increased military readiness. Reuters did not independently verify the images and assessment.  

The new activity comes as Russia extended military drills in Belarus that were due to end on Sunday. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the move has made him more worried about an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine.

However, Reznikov and other officials have downplayed the idea that there would be an attack in the upcoming days. On February 14, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sent observers reeling with a statement, which later was clarified to be ironic, that Russian forces would invade on February 16. 

"It can happen any day, as I said before," Zelensky said on February 12, of the supposed impending invasion. "We have different information, and now, the best friend for our enemies is panic in our country. And all of this only provokes panic and does not help us."

Tzvi Joffre contributed to this report.