As Westerners continue to fear that Russia is planning to invade Ukraine, tensions rose on Thursday along the line that separates Ukrainian forces from Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country, with the two sides clashing. accusing each other of heavy shelling.
The Ukrainian military command blamed shells for hitting a kindergarten building in Stanytsia Luhanska, wounding two civilians and knocking out power to half the town; Separatist authorities in the Lugansk region have reported an increase in Ukrainian shelling along the tense line of contact, describing it as a “large-scale provocation”. Separatist official Rodion Miroshnik said rebel forces retaliated.
An observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is expected to present its assessment of the situation later Thursday.
NATO allies, meanwhile, continue to accuse Russia of misleading the world and spreading ‘disinformation’ by saying it was sending troops back to bases, accusing Moscow of having instead added up to 7,000 more troops near its tense border with Ukraine.
After a handful of positive signals from Russia that lowered the temperature of the crisis earlier in the week, the pendulum seemed to swing in the opposite direction again. With around 150,000 troops massed near Ukraine, the Kremlin offered to continue to seek diplomatic solutions – an openness the NATO chief welcomed, although he and others warned that the alliance led by the United States had still seen no sign of the military withdrawal that Moscow announced.
“We have seen the opposite of some statements. We have seen an increase in troops over the past 48 hours, up to 7,000,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said ahead of a Western alliance meeting in Brussels on Thursday.
This matched what a US administration official had said a day earlier.
British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey even called Russia’s claim that it was withdrawing its troops “disinformation”.
While the West warned that the threat of invasion remained high, no attack materialized on Wednesday, as some had feared.
Moscow has repeatedly said this week that some forces are retreating to their bases, but it gave virtually no details that would allow an independent assessment of the extent and direction of the troop movement, and Western leaders were quick to questioned these statements. On Thursday, NATO allies again dismissed Russian claims – and warned they were ready to counter any aggression.
“The consequences of this massive buildup – almost 60% of Russian ground combat forces on the border of a sovereign nation – will give you the opposite effect,” Wallace said.
“We are deadly serious,” he added, “and we are going to deal with the threat that is now posed.”
The alliance has already moved troops and military equipment to Eastern Europe – in a show of resolve meant to deter any Russian aggression and underscore its intention to defend NATO’s eastern members in the unlikely event. where they too would become a target.
The United States has begun deploying 5,000 troops to Poland and Romania. Another 8,500 are pending. Britain sends hundreds of troops to Poland, offers more warships and planes, and doubles the number of personnel in Estonia. Germany, the Netherlands and Norway send additional troops to Lithuania. Denmark and Spain provide jets for air policing in the Baltic Sea region.
Members of the 101st Airborne Division left Kentucky on Tuesday, bound for Europe.
As Ukraine prepares for a potential invasion, tensions have soared in the conflict in the east of the country where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops since 2014.
Many in the West fear a flare-up in the East could be used by Russia as a pretext to cross the border – although there is no sign yet that the latest fighting has been bigger than what is believed. usually happens. Russia, in turn, has raised concerns that warmongering forces in Ukraine, encouraged by the West, could launch an attack to regain control of rebel areas – plans Ukrainian officials deny.
A 2015 deal brokered by France and Germany ended the worst of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but regular skirmishes have continued and a political settlement has stalled.
The UN Security Council is due to hold its annual meeting on the deal on Thursday.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki discusses the latest news on the Russian conflict on the Ukrainian border.
Russia denies planning an invasion, but says it is free to deploy troops wherever it deems necessary to counter NATO threats. He wants the West to keep Ukraine and other former Soviet countries out of NATO, stop weapons deployments near Russia’s borders and roll back forces from Eastern Europe, demands that allies categorically rejected.
There have been suggestions that Ukraine may decide to give up hope of joining NATO – something written into its constitution – as a way out of the crisis. It’s unclear how or if it would do that.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy noted on Thursday that some NATO members do not want the country to join.
“Not all members of the alliance want Ukraine in NATO,” he said, without naming specific countries. “It’s not the Ukrainian people’s choice when we’re there, because it’s not just up to us — 30 countries need to come to a consensus on this decision.”
While the United States and its allies have flatly rejected Moscow’s demands to bar Ukraine from joining, they have offered to engage in talks with Russia on limits on missile deployments in Europe, restrictions on military exercises and other confidence-building measures.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Moscow of offering to discuss these issues years ago, but the West has only agreed to discuss them now. He said Russia was ready to talk about it now, but only in conjunction with its main security demands.
In 2008, Russia and its neighboring country Georgia engaged in a five-day war that set back the small nation’s ambitions to join NATO and move closer to the EU and the Western world. With Russia now assembling military forces on its border with Ukraine, Foreign Policy Research Institute fellow Stephanie Petrella explains how Russia’s history with Georgia could serve as a model for what is to come.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would send its official response on those issues to the United States and NATO later Thursday and make it public.
Even as Russia appeared to be trying to ease tensions this week, Western allies argued the threat of an attack remained high.
Maxar Technologies, a commercial satellite imagery company that monitors the Russian buildup, reported increased and continued military activity near Ukraine, including a new pontoon bridge and a new field hospital in Belarus. He also said some forces left an airfield in the country, a Russian ally, but it was unclear where they went.
A senior US administration official said some forces had only recently arrived and there had been a marked increase in false claims by Russians that the Kremlin could use as a pretext for an invasion. The official said those allegations included information about unmarked graves of civilians who were allegedly killed by Ukrainian forces, claims that the United States and Ukraine are developing biological or chemical weapons, and claims that the West channels guerrillas to kill Ukrainians.
The official was not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive operations and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The official did not provide evidence underlying these claims.
Rebels in eastern Ukraine have been making such claims for weeks, and they have been featured in some Russian media.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News that Russian President Vladimir Putin “can pull the trigger. He can pull it today. He can pull it tomorrow. He can pull it next week. The forces are there if he wants to renew the aggression against Ukraine.”
Ukraine was once part of the Soviet Union and is now a buffer between Russia and European members of NATO, a military alliance led by Sky News security and defense editor Deborah Haynes , explains in more detail the tensions in Ukraine and how negotiations are going between US and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Isachenkov reported from Moscow and Cook from Brussels. Dasha Litvinova in Moscow, Angela Charlton in Paris, Jill Lawless in London, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Aamer Madhani, Ellen Knickmeyer, Colleen Long and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.