US President Joe Biden has warned there is every indication Russia is planning to invade Ukraine, including signs Moscow is carrying out a false flag operation to justify it, after Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow rebels traded fire.
Moscow, for its part, on Thursday 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 in eastern Ukraine 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 said at the White House. “My sense is it will happen in the next several days.”
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.
Addressing the council, Blinken sketched out in graphic detail how Washington contends any Russian attack would begin and unfold.
“Missiles and bombs drop across Ukraine, communications will be jammed, cyberattacks will shut down Ukrainian institutions,” Blinken told the UNSC.
“After that, Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans.”
The US has declined to share the evidence underlying its claims.
Russia denies planning to invade its neighbour and said this week it was pulling back some of the more than 100,000 soldiers it has massed near the frontier. Washington says Russia is not withdrawing, but in fact sending more forces.
Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels gave conflicting accounts of shelling across the front in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
The details could not be established independently, but reports from both sides suggested an incident more serious than the ceasefire violations reported regularly in the area.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said pro-Russian forces had shelled a daycare centre, 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.
Kremlin spokesman 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.
UN Political Affairs Chief Rosemary DiCarlo said, “Whatever one believes about the prospect of such a confrontation, the reality is that the current situation is extremely dangerous.”
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called unrest at the front line “a blatant attempt by the Russian government to fabricate pretexts for invasion”.
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.
⚡️Kindergarten in Stanytsya Luhanska right now. Direct artillery hit. Children were there. Waiting confirmation about two adults with contusion, 4 kids injured. pic.twitter.com/KGyGmYIL4V
— Maria Zolkina (@Mariia_Zolkina) February 17, 2022
Meanwhile, the US State Department said Russia had provided no explanation for its decision to eject Deputy Chief of Mission Bart Gorman from the US 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.
Al Jazeera’s Rosalind Jordan, reporting from Washington, DC, said Gorman was a “longtime career diplomat, the number two person with a lot of experience” in dealing with security matters.
“The pretext the US says that Mr Gorman was expelled, had nothing to do with his length of service. They say that he still had time on his visa to continue his service,” Jordan added.
“They also said that the Russian government has degraded the number of people who can work at the US mission in Moscow to a level a lot lower than here in Washington at the Russian embassy. The State Department says that is very worrisome at a time when there needs to be more diplomatic contact between the two governments.”