Residents near the Ukrainian frontline rushed into basements for cover on Thursday as artillery firefights with Russian-backed separatists reached their most intense level in months, a development worrying amid Western fears that Russia could use the fighting as a pretext to invade Ukraine.
As the United States and Russia exchanged conflicting accounts on whether Russian forces were actually withdrawing from the Ukrainian border, as Moscow insisted, the separatists claimed they had come under fire Ukrainians. This is precisely the kind of incident that Western authorities have warned Russia might try to use to justify military action.
At the White House, President Joe Biden said “every indication we have is that they’re ready to come into Ukraine, attack Ukraine.” He said the United States had “reason to believe” that Russia was “engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to enter.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an unscheduled trip to New York, where he told the United Nations Security Council that US intelligence “clearly indicates” that Russian forces surrounding the country from three sides are “preparing to launch an attack on Ukraine in the coming days”. .”
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The escalating tensions spilled over into the markets, where stock prices plunged.
Russia continued to insist on Thursday that it had no intention of invading, issuing new updates on troop withdrawals and dismissing US invasion warnings as “terror of the world”. ‘information”.
The Russian government also issued a lengthy response to US proposals made last month to ease tensions, maintaining the Kremlin’s efforts to regain a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and issuing a vague warning of new military deployments. If the United States does not accede to their demands, the document indicates that “Russia will be obliged to respond, in particular by the implementation of measures of a military-technical character”.
In eastern Ukraine on Thursday, where a kindergarten was bombed, the spike in violence evoked the kind of scenario Western leaders have warned of amid the huge buildup of Russian troops around Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin this week repeated his false claim that Ukraine was committing ‘genocide’ against Russian speakers in the east of the country, while Russian authorities announced an investigation into alleged ‘common hinges’ of victims Russian-speaking Ukrainian forces.
And on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov offered a disturbing assessment. “The excessive concentration of Ukrainian forces near the line of contact, as well as possible provocations, can pose a terrible danger,” he said.
Blinken told the Security Council that Moscow appeared to be preparing the ground.
“Russia is considering fabricating a pretext for its attack,” he said, citing a “so-called terrorist attack” or “a fake or even a real attack” with chemical weapons. “It could be a violent event that Russia will blame on Ukraine,” he said, “or an outrageous accusation that Russia will bring against the Ukrainian government.”
If so, it wouldn’t be the first time.
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When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, it did so after claiming that Russian speakers there were threatened by a pro-Western revolution in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, which the Kremlin called a fascist coup. And in 2008, Russia invaded Georgia after the Georgian military moved into a Russian-backed separatist enclave.
Skirmishes in Eastern Europe between Ukrainian forces and Kremlin-backed separatists have been going on for a long time, but Thursday’s violence was the worst since a ceasefire was reached two years ago.
The fighters exchanged not just shells but charges. The Ukrainian military said three adult civilians were injured at the kindergarten, and on the other side, a Russian-backed separatist leader said Ukraine fired mortars “barbarically and cynical”.
The artillery fire started in the early morning and did not stop with the arrival of evening. The high-pitched crackle of explosions echoed off the buildings, and flashes of light from incoming shells outlined the silhouette of the trees.
The days of sudden developments have made undeniable the volatility of a crisis that US officials say could lead to an assault by one of the world’s strongest armies on Ukraine, Europe’s second largest country. , a development young Europeans never expected to see.
Yet many analysts in Moscow remained convinced that Putin’s troop build-up was a bluff – a way to pressure the West into excluding Ukraine from NATO membership and to force the alliance to reduce its presence in Eastern Europe.
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Whatever its true intentions, the diplomatic and military crisis has also become an intense public messaging battle, with Moscow and Washington deploying vivid imagery and rhetoric to discredit the other side.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a meeting of his NATO counterparts in Brussels that Russia was continuing to move its troops closer to Ukraine’s borders. He added that he was also adding fighter jets and stocking up on blood in anticipation of battlefield casualties.
“I know firsthand that you don’t do this stuff for no reason,” said Austin, a retired four-star Army general. “And you definitely don’t if you’re about to pack up and go home.”
Early Friday morning, shortly after Blinken arrived in Munich for an annual security conference, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Blinken had accepted an offer to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. at the end of next week. Price did not provide a time or location for the meeting, the two diplomats’ second in two months, except to say it wouldn’t happen if Russia invaded Ukraine further. “If they invade in the next few days, it will make it clear that they were never serious about diplomacy,” Price said in the statement.
Although there are around 150,000 Russian troops around Ukraine, Russia has presented the deployments as little more than military exercises. On Thursday, international journalists were invited to travel to Belarus – a close Kremlin ally – to see for themselves. There, amid the roar of Russian and Belarusian firepower, they were treated to mocking comments directed at Western intelligence agencies by Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
“There will be no invasion tomorrow,” Lukashenko said as military drills unfolded at a desolate military training ground southeast of Belarus’ capital Minsk. “Do you still have this crazy idea?”
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Lukashenko was due to meet Putin in Moscow on Friday and promised he was ready to keep Russian troops in his country “as long as necessary”.
Western officials say Russian troops amassed in Belarus are part of what makes the current threat of invasion so serious, allowing the Kremlin to attack from the north as well as from the Russian mainland to the east and from Crimea and the Black Sea to the south.
A key question now is whether Russia will continue its diplomatic engagement with the West. While Putin and Lavrov have held a slew of meetings and calls with their Western counterparts in recent weeks, there are no more such interactions on the calendar for the days ahead.
Blinken said the State Department was “evaluating” the Russian document delivered to Washington on Thursday and had offered Lavrov that the two meet in Europe next week. Russian officials have not confirmed that the minister would agree to the meeting.
“Blinken hasn’t even taken the time to read Russia’s response, and he’s already calling Lavrov to a meeting,” a senior Russian foreign ministry official said. “What are they going to talk about? »
The document stated that there was only a narrow diplomatic channel.
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He said a US proposal to allow Russia to inspect US missile defense bases in Poland and Romania, which the Kremlin sees as a threat, could “be given more consideration”. He also said Russia saw “the potential for mutually acceptable agreements” over long-range bomber flights near national borders. And he said Russia was “open in principle” to discussing a replacement for the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, a historic 1987 nuclear arms control pact that the Trump administration abandoned in 2019, after accusing Russia for violating it.
But Moscow has insisted those elements can only be agreed as part of a package that meets Russia’s central demands.
“We welcome the willingness of the United States for appropriate consultations,” the document said. “However, this work cannot replace the resolution of the key problems posed by Russia.”
Among Russia’s demands was that the NATO military end all cooperation with Ukraine and withdraw all Western weapons delivered to the country in recent years to help it defend itself against Russia and the Russian-backed separatists. The document also repeated Russia’s central demands for “security guarantees” that Putin first outlined last November, including that NATO assure Ukraine will never join the alliance and that it would withdraw troops stationed in countries that joined the alliance after 1997.
“Our ‘red lines’ and core security interests are ignored, and Russia’s inalienable right to guarantee them is denied,” the document said.
Western leaders have rejected calls for troop withdrawals or the exclusion of some NATO countries, but hinted at the possibility that Ukraine itself may drop membership in the alliance.
And while the letter reiterated recent denials by Russian officials of any plans to invade Ukraine, it also warned of an unspecified military response if those demands are not met, a response that analysts interpreted such as the potential deployment of advanced missile systems in a new, more threatening posture.
“No ‘Russian invasion of Ukraine,’ which the United States and its allies have officially announced since last fall, is taking place, nor is it planned,” the document said. But if the United States does not provide “firm and legally binding guarantees of our security,” he said, “Russia will be forced to respond, including through the implementation of measures of a military-technical character.” .