Joe Biden has warned that Russia is on the brink of invading Ukraine within “several days”, saying the US believes the Kremlin is engaged in “a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in”.
The US president spoke as Kyiv and Moscow blamed each other for clashes in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region on Thursday, incidents the west fears will be used as a pretext for a coordinated Russian military campaign. Speaking at the White House, Biden said there was a “very high risk” of a Russian invasion.
“Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine,” he said. “My sense is it will happen in the next several days.”
While Biden said a diplomatic path to resolving the crisis remained open, his words reflected the growing pessimism across western capitals and more bellicose rhetoric from Moscow. Earlier on Thursday the Ukrainian army claimed “Russian occupation forces” controlling breakaway far eastern regions of Ukraine had shelled more than 20 separate locations, including a kindergarten in a village in the Luhansk region, injuring two civilians. Russia, which backs separatists in the Donbas but denies — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — that it is a party to the conflict, blamed Ukraine for the escalation. Dmitry Peskov, spokesperson for President Vladimir Putin, said the shelling “was a subject of very, very deep concern”. “We have warned many times that Ukraine’s excessive concentration of its armed forces next to the line of contact, along with the possibility of provocations, could be highly dangerous. And now we can see these provocations are happening,” Peskov told reporters. The flare-up was the latest in a smouldering conflict that has claimed about 14,000 lives in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk since erupting in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
A statement posted on the website of Donetsk-based Russian-backed separatists said: “The situation on the line of contact has escalated significantly over the past few hours.” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky posted in a tweet that he had described the flare-up in the Luhansk region as “provocative shelling” during a phone call with Charles Michel, president of the European Council.
Speaking after Nato ministerial meetings in Brussels, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin described the reports of shelling as “troubling”, observing that the US had for some time stated that Putin might do something like this as a pretext for a military conflict. “We will be watching this very closely.” Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was concerned that Russia was seeking to stage a pretext for an armed attack on Ukraine, as he reiterated that there were no signs of withdrawal or de-escalation by Moscow. “They have enough troops and enough capabilities to launch a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine with very little or no warning — that is what makes the situation so dangerous,” Stoltenberg told reporters. “We have not seen any evidence from our sensors that support the idea of shelling in the Donbas,” a western official said on Thursday.
“There have been routine exchanges across the line for years, but I’ve seen no evidence of a spike in action.” “This is the sort of provocation that has the potential to escalate . . . It could be accidental but equally there could be a planned escalation by Russia to provide false justification for military action. This sort of pretext, if it is built on in coming days, could be used as a justification for invasion.” The increased fighting in Donbas comes as the US, UK and Nato continued to rebut Russia’s claims this week that it was pulling back some of its forces from the border with Ukraine and in Crimea as well as Donbas. In a tweet, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the UN, said she had asked US secretary of state Antony Blinken to speak at a UN Security Council session on Thursday. “Our goal is to convey the gravity of the situation. The evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving toward an imminent invasion. This is a crucial moment,” Thomas-Greenfield said. She added that Blinken also wanted to signal Washington’s “intense commitment to diplomacy, to offer and emphasise the path toward de-escalation, and to make it clear to the world that we are doing everything we can to prevent war”. The White House late on Wednesday called the Kremlin’s claims that it was withdrawing forces from the Ukrainian border “false” and accused Russia of increasing its troop presence in the region by about 7,000 in recent days. Jim Hockenhull, the UK’s defence intelligence chief, said Britain had sightings of “additional [Russian] armoured vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital moving towards Ukraine’s borders”.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said the west was fanning “hysteria” by accusing Moscow of not withdrawing its troops. “This is where the escalation is, in [how] they are constantly filling people’s minds with these threats and scare stories,” Lavrov said according to Interfax. Thursday’s flare-up has added to the belief that Putin, who has massed more than 150,000 troops around Ukraine and warned this week that Kyiv was conducting a “genocide” in Donbas, could use any escalation as a pretext to invade. “Russia’s claim of genocide in Ukraine is a reprehensible falsehood,” the US mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe wrote on Twitter.