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Putin presides over nuclear drills Saturday amid Ukraine tensions

Putin presides over nuclear drills Saturday amid Ukraine tensions
Russian President Vladimir Putin observes strategic deterrence force exercise in the Kremlin's situation room. Photo courtesy of Office of President of Russia

Feb. 19 (UPI) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin presided Saturday over nuclear drills amid ongoing tensions over a potential invasion of Ukraine.

Russia launched nuclear-capable hypersonic and cruise missiles at sea as Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko watched from the Kremlin situation room, the Kremlin said.

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The Kremlin announced Friday the strategic missile tests would take place on Saturday.

The announcement came a day after the Kremlin said that Russia may be "forced to respond" militarily if the United States doesn't agree to Moscow's demand to bar Ukraine and Georgia -- two breakaway countries which were formerly part of the Soviet Union -- from joining NATO.

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The United States and NATO have rejected this demand because they have said Ukraine alone should decide its security needs.

The exercise Saturday appeared carefully timed to deter Western military from involvement in Ukraine amid growing tensions as U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin warned Saturday that Russia was moving toward a position to potentially invade Ukraine.

"They're uncoiling and now poised to strike," Austin said during an appearance in Vilnius, Lithuania, after meeting with Baltic leaders.

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Austin also reiterated U.S. President Joe Biden's assertion Friday that he believes Putin has made the decision to invade Ukraine.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, in Germany for the Munich Security Conference, on Saturday, added that the United States and allies will impose financial penalties to include "those who are complicit and those who aid and direct" potentially "unprovoked invasion" of Ukraine.

Also, on Saturday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said shelling killed two Ukrainian soldiers and injured five others amid reports of escalated shelling the past few days by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, The Washington Post reported.

The defense minister told the Post that Ukrainian forces were not planning to launch an offensive, but Kyiv would "not allow the firing on the positions of our troops and human settlements with impunity."

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