Biden says Russian invasion threat ‘very high;’ Ukraine and West accuse Russia of trying to create pretext after shelling

President Joe Biden said Thursday the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine was “very high” as the United States and its allies warned Moscow was trying to create a pretext for an attack after shelling in the country’s east.

Speaking to reporters on the White House lawn, Biden said Moscow could invade its neighbor “in the next several days.”

“We have reason to believe that they are engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in,” he said. “Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine and attack Ukraine.”

Biden’s comments came after Kyiv said Russian-backed separatists were responsible for “a big provocation” after the shelling of a kindergarten in eastern Ukraine. The flare-up in the long-running conflict further stoked fears of a deadly new outbreak of war in Europe.

Tensions showed no signs of easing after the West disputed Moscow’s claims of a troop pullback from near Ukraine’s borders, with the Kremlin expelling a senior U.S. diplomat and delivering a sharp response to Washington over the Russian security demands at the heart of the crisis.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken changed his travel plans at the last minute to speak at a United Nations Security Council meeting on the subject in New York.

“I am here today not to start a war, but to prevent one,” Blinken said.

Echoing Biden, he warned that U.S. intelligence indicates that more than 150,000 Russian troops massed near Ukraine’s borders, as well as aircraft and ships, “are preparing to launch an attack against Ukraine in the coming days.” 

Blinken spelled out what that could look like. “First, Russia plans to manufacture a pretext for its attack,” he said, before describing a campaign of bombings, cyberattacks and subsequent ground advance “on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans.”

“If Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine, then we will be relieved that Russia changed course and proved our predictions wrong,” Blinken added.

But hopes of a de-escalation were fading.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told reporters ahead of the meeting that “the evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving toward an imminent invasion.”

Moscow’s foreign ministry published the Russian response to the U.S. over its security demands, which has been awaited for weeks. It decried the West’s refusal to meet Russia’s core demands and asserted again that it could take unspecified “military-technical measures” if the U.S. and its allies continued to stonewall the Kremlin’s concerns.

In a surprise move, the U.S. said that its second-most senior official at the American Embassy in Moscow was expelled Thursday. A state Department spokesperson said the move to expel Bart Gorman, the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) to Russia, was “unprovoked” and “an escalatory step.”

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