Russia announced massive exercises of its nuclear forces on Friday amid rising East-West tensions, as the United States issued some of its clearest and most detailed warnings yet about how a Russian invasion of Ukraine could unfold.
US President Joe Biden looked uncharacteristically dire a day earlier as he warned that Washington saw no signs of a promised Russian withdrawal – but instead saw more troops heading towards the border with Ukraine.
“Every indication we have is that they are ready to enter Ukraine, attack Ukraine,” Biden told reporters at the White House. He said the United States had “reason to believe” that Russia was “engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to enter,” but he did not provide details.
Some fear that the long-running separatist conflict simmering in eastern Ukraine provides exactly that cover. The area has seen an intensification of shelling and apparent cyberattacks over the past two days.
With tensions already at their highest level since the Cold War, Russia’s military announced that President Vladimir Putin would oversee a massive exercise of the country’s nuclear forces on Saturday that would involve multiple practice missile launches – a stark reminder of the country’s nuclear might amid the confrontation. with the West.
Western fears center on around 150,000 Russian troops – including around 60% of all Russian ground forces – stationed around Ukraine’s borders. The Kremlin insists it has no intention of invading, but it has long viewed Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence and NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat. Moscow’s main demand in this crisis is for NATO to promise never to allow Ukraine to join – a move the Western alliance has flatly rejected.
Biden planned to speak by phone Friday with transatlantic leaders about bolstering the Russian military and continuing deterrence and diplomacy efforts.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed some US intelligence findings, part of a strategy designed to expose and anticipate any invasion planning. The United States has refused to reveal much of the evidence underlying its claims.
Blinken told UN Security Council diplomats that a sudden and seemingly violent event staged by Russia to justify an invasion would trigger the assault. Blinken mentioned a “so-called terrorist attack” inside Russia, a staged drone strike, “a fake, if not a real attack…using chemical weapons.”
The invasion would open with cyberattacks, as well as missile strikes and bombs across Ukraine, Blinken said, describing the entry of Russian troops and their advance on Kiev, a city of nearly 3 million. inhabitants, and other key targets.
At NATO headquarters in Brussels, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin questioned claims of Russian troop withdrawals.
“We saw some of these troops moving closer to this border,” he said. “We even see them getting blood. You don’t do these kinds of things for no reason, and you certainly don’t do them if you’re about to pack your bags and head home.
Despite stern American warnings, Ukrainian officials have sought to project calm, with Oleksii Danilov, head of the National Security and Defense Council, saying late Thursday that there were no signs that a massive Russian invasion was coming. imminent.
Nonetheless, US and European officials were on high alert for any Russian attempt to create a pretext for the invasion, according to a Western official familiar with intelligence findings. Ukrainian government officials shared intelligence with allies suggesting the Russians may attempt to bomb areas of the Luhansk region controlled by Moscow-backed separatists on Friday morning as part of an effort to create a false reason to take military action, according to the official who was not authorized to comment publicly.
The region saw a sharp increase in shelling on Thursday, with observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reporting more than 500 explosions before tensions eased in the evening. Ukrainian authorities and separatists have traded accusations of breaching an uneasy truce in the nearly 8-year-old conflict in eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland, called Donbass. The conflict erupted shortly after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and claimed 14,000 lives.
Ukraine’s military command said shells hit a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska, wounding two adults and knocking out electricity to half the town. The rebels said nearly 19 houses were damaged by Ukrainian fire.
Early on Friday, separatist authorities in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions reported renewed shelling by Ukrainian forces along the tense line of contact.
Ukrainian officials accused the rebels of stepping up shelling in hopes of provoking a retaliatory attack by government forces.
Ukrainian military leader Valerii Zaluzhnyi said he “is not planning any offensive operations or shelling of civilians”, adding that “our actions are purely defensive”.
But fears persist that the violence could spark a wider conflict, and Western powers have scrambled to avert or prepare for a possible invasion.
NATO defense ministers discussed ways to strengthen defenses in Eastern Europe, while EU leaders considered how to punish Russia if it invaded. Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris are among political, military and diplomatic leaders heading to an annual security conference in Munich that will see urgent consultations on the crisis.
The United States and Russia have also scheduled talks in the coming days. Blinken is expected to meet his Russian counterpart next week, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is expected to have a call with Austin on Friday, the Russian military said.
Faced with Western doubts about Russia’s claim that it is returning forces to bases, Moscow said the withdrawal would take time. Russia also made a new diplomatic overture on Thursday, handing the United States a response to offers to start talks on limiting missile deployments in Europe, restrictions on military exercises and other peace-building measures. confidence.
Isachenkov reported from Moscow and Superville from Washington. Lorne Cook in Brussels, Matthew Lee in Munich, Angela Charlton in Paris, Jill Lawless in London, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Frank Jordans in Berlin, and Aamer Madhani and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this report.
More AP coverage of the Ukraine crisis: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine