Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Ukraine region known as the Donbas said they are evacuating their region's residents to Russia on Friday.
Denis Pushkin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said on social media that Russia had agreed to provide accommodation for those who leave, according to media reports. Women, children and the elderly should be evacuated first. The other self-proclaimed region, Luhansk, made a similar announcement.
Pushkin said that he believes Ukrainian military forces will invade, adding that they have been bolstered by Western countries and “are now prepositioned for combat and ready to take Donbas by force," according to Russian state-funded media.
“That is why starting today, February 18, a mass evacuation of people to the Russian Federation has been organized,” he continued to say.
Ukrainian officials immediately denied claims that its forces will attack the Donbas region.
Around the same time, Leonid Pasechnik, the most senior official in the Luhansk People's Republic, another separatist region in the Donbas, announced an evacuation and said that “due to the escalation of tension on the contact line, instructed the heads of the territories of the Republic to ensure the organized evacuation of the population ... and help the population in the delivery to border checkpoints.”
Pasechnik added that “the Russian Federation is ready to provide organized reception and accommodation on its territory of residents of the Luhansk People's Republic.”
But on Friday, top Ukrainian officials downplayed concerns of a potential invasion by Russia despite White House officials continuously warning about its possibility in recent days.
It came a day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the U.N. Security Council claimed that Russia is already starting its plans to invade Ukraine.
"Here’s what the world can expect to see unfold, in fact, it's unfolding right now today as Russia takes steps down the path to war," he said, without providing evidence. "First Russia plans to manufacture a pretext for its attack ... this could be a violent event that Russia will bring on Ukraine or an outrageous accusation that Russia will level against the Ukrainian government."
And Michael Carpenter, the U.S. envoy to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, on Friday, meanwhile, said that as many as 190,000 Russian troops are massed along the Ukrainian border. That's up from about 100,000 in late January, he said in a statement at a meeting in Vienna.
On Thursday and Friday, Russian Foreign Ministry officials again denied that Russia will invade, saying that troop movements are routine.