There was every indication, and still is now, that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine in the next few days and has been preparing a pretext to justify it, US President Joe Biden said on Thursday, after Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow rebels traded fire in eastern Ukraine.
The Kremlin accused Biden of stoking tension, and released a strongly worded letter that said Washington was ignoring its security demands, and threatening unspecified “military-technical measures.” Moscow also ejected the No. 2 official from the US Embassy.
An early morning exchange of fire between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists stoked alarm, with Western officials who have long warned that Moscow could try to create a scenario to justify an invasion saying they believed that was now unfolding.
“We have reason to believe they are engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in,” Biden told reporters as he departed the White House. “Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine and attack Ukraine. My sense is this 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 UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine.
Blinken outlined to the Council what he said were possible scenarios Russia could create to justify an invasion.
“This could be a violent event that Russia will bring on Ukraine, or an outrageous accusation that Russia will level against the Ukrainian government,” Blinken said.
“It could be a fabricated so-called terrorist bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of a mass grave, a staged drone strike against civilians, or a fake – even a real – attack using chemical weapons. Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing, or a genocide.”
The Foreign Ministry repeated its call for Israelis in Ukraine to return, saying that “tensions in Ukraine are increasing on the background of shootings in the country’s east.”
As of Thursday, 3,300 Israelis left Ukraine, which means there are about 9,000 left. The Foreign Ministry said three flights to Israel are set to leave Ukraine on Friday and two on Saturday.
Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz contacted Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov on Wednesday to express concern for Israeli citizens and diplomats in Ukraine.
Following media reports on the call that said Jerusalem asked Moscow for help evacuating Israelis – which the Foreign Ministry denied – Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry summoned Israeli Ambassador in Kyiv Michael Brodsky for clarification.
Brodsky said in the meeting that the call had two goals: to send a message of de-escalation, and to express concern for the security of Israeli diplomats and emissaries.
Russia denies planning to invade its neighbor, and has accused Western leaders of hysteria. This week it said it was pulling back some of the more than 100,000 troops it has massed near the frontier, and on Thursday it said some had returned to base.
Washington says Russia is not withdrawing, but is in fact sending more forces. White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said on Thursday that Washington had confirmed that Russia had added 7,000 troops to its presence at the Ukrainian border over the past 24 hours, a cause of “serious concern.”
“We see them fly in more combat and support aircraft,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at NATO headquarters in Brussels. “We see them sharpen their readiness in the Black Sea. 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. 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.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky 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 over 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.
Russia delivered a letter to the US 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.
Blinken said Washington was evaluating the letter, and that he had already sent a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposing a meeting next week in Europe to try to resolve the crisis without conflict.
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.
Russia’s Defense Ministry released a video it said showed more Russian units leaving the area near the border.
But Maxar Technologies, a private US 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.