Moscow, Feb 18 (Reuters) – US President Joe Biden said that there was now every indication Russia was planning to invade Ukraine, including signs Moscow was carrying out a false flag operation to justify it, after Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow rebels traded fire.
Moscow, for its part, ejected the number two official from the US embassy and released a strongly worded letter accusing Washington of ignoring its security demands. It threatened unspecified “military-technical measures”.
Early morning exchanges of fire between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists raised alarm, with Western officials who have long warned that Moscow could try to create a pretext for an invasion saying they believed such a scenario was now unfolding.
“We have reason to believe they are engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in. Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine and attack Ukraine,” Biden told reporters as he departed the White House.
Biden ordered Secretary of State Antony Blinken to change his travel plans at the last minute to speak at a United Nations Security Council meeting on Ukraine.
“The evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving toward an imminent invasion. This is a crucial moment,” US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told reporters.
Russia denies planning to invade its neighbour and said this week it was pulling back some of the more than 100,000 troops it has massed near the frontier. Washington says Russia is not withdrawing, but in fact sending more forces.
“We see them fly in more combat and support aircraft. We see them sharpen their readiness in the Black Sea,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at NATO headquarters in Brussels. “We even see them stocking up their blood supplies.”
“I was a soldier myself not that long ago. I know firsthand that you don’t do these sorts of things for no reason,” said Austin, a retired Army general. “And you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home.”
Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels gave conflicting accounts of shelling across the front in the Donbass separatist region. The details could not be established independently, but reports from both sides suggested an incident more serious than the routine ceasefire violations reported regularly in the area.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was “seriously concerned” about the reports of an escalation. Russia has long accused Kyiv of planning to provoke escalation as an excuse to seize rebel territory by force, which Ukraine denies.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called unrest at the frontline “a blatant attempt by the Russian government to fabricate pretexts for invasion”.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the pro-Russian forces had shelled a kindergarten, in what he called a “big provocation”. Video footage released by Ukrainian police showed a hole through a brick wall in a room scattered with debris and children’s toys.
The separatists, for their part, accused government forces of opening fire on their territory four times in the past 24 hours.
Neither account could be verified. A Reuters photographer in the town of Kadiivka, in Ukraine’s rebel-held Luhansk region, heard the sound of some artillery fire from the direction of the line of contact, but was not able to determine details.
Austin said Washington was “still gathering details, but we have said for some time that the Russians might do something like this in order to justify a military conflict”.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was “concerned that Russia is trying to stage a pretext for an armed attack against Ukraine”.
“They have enough troops, enough capabilities to launch a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine with very little or no warning time,” he said.
FORCED TO RESPOND
Russia delivered a letter to the U.S. ambassador accusing Washington of having ignored its security demands, which include promising never to allow Ukraine to join NATO.
“In the absence of the readiness of the American side to agree on firm, legally binding guarantees of our security from the United States and its allies, Russia will be forced to respond, including through the implementation of military-technical measures,” the document said.
The U.S. State Department said Russia had provided no explanation for its decision to eject Deputy Chief of Mission Bart Gorman from the U.S. embassy in Moscow.
“Russia’s action against our DCM was unprovoked and we consider this an escalatory step and are considering our response,” a spokesperson said.
Russia’s defence ministry released video it said showed more Russian units leaving the area near the border.
But Maxar Technologies, a private U.S. company that has been tracking the build-up, said satellite images showed that, while Russia has pulled back some military equipment from near Ukraine, other hardware has arrived.