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War fears hit new heights as Biden tells Americans to flee Ukraine

With Russian troops holding large-scale military drills on three sides of Ukraine and the Winter Olympics acting as a tense backdrop, fears of war breaking out have reached a boiling point.

(CN) — Fears of a European war breaking out reached an even higher level of intensity on Friday as the White House warned that Russia might invade Ukraine at any moment and Russian troops and war ships engaged in large-scale military drills on its southern neighbor's borders.

Europeans woke up Friday morning with news that U.S. President Joe Biden was telling Americans living in Ukraine to leave the country because “things could go crazy quickly” at any moment.

“American citizens should leave now,” Biden said in a prerecorded interview with NBC News Thursday evening. On Friday, the United Kingdom, Japan and the Netherlands also told their citizens to leave immediately.

When prodded, Biden reaffirmed that American troops would not be sent to Ukraine if Russia invades. But the U.S. and its allies are warning that Russia will face severe consequences if it invades.

“That's a world war. When Americans and Russians start shooting one another, we're in a very different world,” he said.

War fears were stoked further by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken when he said during a trip to Australia on Friday that Russia could invade during the Winter Olympics in Beijing, which end on Feb. 20.

“Simply put, we continue to see very troubling signs of Russian escalation, including new forces arriving at the Ukrainian border,” Blinken told a news conference in Melbourne, Australia. “As we've said before, we're in a window when an invasion could begin at any time, and to be clear, that includes during the Olympics.”

For weeks, military experts have speculated about a Russian invasion during the Winter Olympics because Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 during the Summer Olympics in Beijing and the Kremlin ordered the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine during the 2104 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

The Olympic Games themselves are adding even more fuel to this combustible situation after a doping scandal involving Russia's top female figure skater, the 15-year-old superstar Kamila Valieva, erupted.

Shortly before the Russian skating team was about to receive the gold medal ahead of the United States, the award ceremony was postponed due to a “legal problem.” Valieva is now under suspicion after the International Testing Agency revealed she tested positive for the banned heart drug trimetazidine at the Russian national championships in December. A hearing into the case is scheduled for Monday, throwing into doubt Russia's team gold medal and her participation in the Olympics. In winning the team competition, Valieva became the first female skater to land a quadruple jump at the Olympics, a feat hailed as historic.

Now Russia is rallying behind the teenage star.

“We absolutely overwhelmingly support Kamila Valieva in any case, and we urge everyone to support her,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin's spokesman. “And we tell her: ‘Kamila don’t hide your face. You are Russian. Walk proudly and, most importantly, compete and defeat everyone!’”

Adding to this dangerously volatile picture are large-scale military drills that got underway this week in Belarus, the Black Sea and near Ukraine's borders in Russia.

About 130,000 Russian troops have been amassed around Ukraine and they are engaged in live-fire exercises that are expected to last for several days. The Russian Navy closed off large areas of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov for live-fire exercises by its fleet, causing an effective blockade of Ukrainian ports.

On Friday, Ukrainian military officials warned that Russian-backed separatists in Donbas, a breakaway region in eastern Ukraine where a simmering war has been fought for the past eight years, also were engaged in military drills.

Despite the U.S. warnings, many Russia experts do not believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning to invade Ukraine because the costs of such an action would be simply too high. Russia faces even heavier sanctions, exclusion from the U.S.-dominated international banking system and a costly and bloody war with a much-improved Ukrainian military.

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Faced with NATO increasing its supply of weapons, including anti-tank missiles and attack drones, to Ukraine and stepping up its efforts to bring Ukraine into the anti-Russian military alliance, Putin may have felt it necessary to show Russia's displeasure over the situation in Ukraine by flexing military muscles, experts believe.

U.S. combat vehicles arrive at the Mihail Kogalniceanu airbase near the Black Sea port city of Constanta, Romania, on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. The equipment is part of an effort to bolster defensive forces on the NATO alliance's eastern flank. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)

“You have to do something,” said Andrey Kortunov, the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow-based think tank, in a telephone interview with Courthouse News. “I think that they wanted to have the best of two worlds: they wanted to have this training [military drills] and at the same time deter Ukraine. I think this is the goal.”

Kortunov said its doubtful Russian troops moved to the borderlands near Ukraine can stay there for long.

“I assume they cannot place these troops there indefinitely,” he said. “They need to get back to their permanent locations, they need to get back to standard trainings exercises.”

He expected a de-escalation to begin “if nothing dramatic happens.”

Russia's buildup may have been provoked by Ukraine too. Since at least February 2021, Ukrainian military brass, experts and media have reportedly talked about a possible blitzkrieg into the rebel-held eastern regions. Reportedly, Ukrainian military leaders believed they could overwhelm the Russia-backed separatists in Donbas as long as Russian troops did not get involved in the fight.

“All this is taking place in the context of the public endorsement by a host of senior current and former Ukrainian officials of the so-called 'Croatian Scenario' – a blitzkrieg to re-conquer Donbas," said Nicolai Petro, a politics professor at the University of Rhode Island and expert on Russia and Ukraine, in an email to Courthouse News.

The “Croatian Scenario” is a strategy inspired by Croatia's speedy military actions during the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s to claim areas it wanted.

Kortunov said the U.S. is the key player in deciding whether the conflict in Ukraine will get even more intense.

“I think the United States can be either a part of the problem or part of the solution,” he said. “Definitely, the United States can benefit from the current tensions in the center of Europe because that keeps the integrity of the Atlantic alliance and it gives the United States additional leverage.”

Indeed, in response to the military showdown over Ukraine, the NATO alliance has seemingly grown stronger as European nations vow their support for Ukraine and send additional troops and weapons to their allies along the Russian border, such as Poland, Lithuania and Romania.

All sides say they want to avoid war and diplomacy has been in high gear in recent weeks. This week saw French President Emmanuel Macron visit Putin at the Kremlin, opening the possibility for new negotiations between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France to settle the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine is a deeply divided nation with a largely Russophile population east of the Dnieper River and a mostly Europhile population west of the river.

The NATO-Russia crisis began with the overthrow of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich during the U.S.-backed “Maidan Revolution” in 2013-2014. Following his overthrow, Russia annexed Crimea, where it stations its Black Sea Fleet, and backed an armed rebellion in the Donbas. About 14,000 people have been killed in that conflict and up to 2 million people displaced from their homes.

A ceasefire deal signed by Ukraine and Russia, the so-called Minsk Agreements, sets out a series of steps for bringing peace to Ukraine, but the peace deal has faltered. Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are trying to revive the talks, known as the Normandy Format. The U.S. is not a party to those talks. Scholz is expected to visit Kyiv on Monday and Moscow on Tuesday.

“I would prefer the United States to play a more constructive role – not necessarily joining the Minsk Agreements but at least to use its leverage in both Moscow and Kyiv to find some kind of accommodation,” Kortunov said. “It would be difficult, but I think given the current developments in Europe, the United States remains the ultimate broker in the situation.”

In December, Putin demanded NATO's retreat from Russia's borders and legal guarantees that Kyiv will not be allowed into the Western military alliance. Those demands were rejected as “non-starters” by the U.S. and NATO.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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