KYIV, Ukraine — U.S. President Joe Biden said Friday he’s “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to launch a further invasion in Ukraine, including an assault on its capital, Kyiv, as tensions spiked along the militarized border with attacks that the West called “false-flag” operations meant to establish a pretext for invasion.
Pro-Russian rebels evacuated civilians trapped in the conflict zone after a convoy carrying humanitarian aid was struck by shelling on Friday. There were no reports of casualties in the bombing that struck Donetsk’s eastern city.
After weeks of saying the U.S. wasn’t sure if Putin had made the final decision to launch a widespread invasion, Biden said that assessment had changed, citing the Americans’ “significant intelligence capability.”
“As of this moment I’m convinced he’s made the decision,” Biden said. “We have reason to believe that.” He reiterated that it could occur in the “coming days.”
Meanwhile, the Kremlin announced massive nuclear drills to flex its military muscle, and Putin pledged to protect Russia’s national interests against what it sees as encroaching Western threats.
Biden reiterated the threat of economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia in case it invades, and pressured Putin to reconsider his plan. According to Biden, the U.S. along with its Western allies are more united than ever before in order for Russia to pay the cost of the invasion.
Putin remained open to diplomacy but a series of events this week has further increased East-West tensions. This week’s actions have fed those concerns: U.S. and European officials, focused on an estimated 150,000 Russian troops posted around Ukraine’s borders, warn the long-simmering separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine could provide the spark for a broader attack.
A U.S. defense officer stated that an estimated 40 to 50 percent of ground troops near the Ukrainian border had moved onto attack positions closer to the border, which is a sign of Russian preparations. Other officials said that the shift occurred over the past week and doesn’t necessarily indicate Putin is ready to invade. Under condition of anonymity, the defense official discussed internal U.S. military assessments.
Officials also stated that the Russian ground units, known as battalion tac groups or Russian ground units deployed along the border have increased to 120 to 125 from 83 just two weeks ago. A battalion tactical team has between 775 and 1000 soldiers.
Kamala Harris, the Vice President, stated that although America still believes Russia will negotiate, they are ready to strike it with severe sanctions in the case of an attack. The most serious warnings by U.S. officials this week were that Moscow may order an invasion of Ukraine anytime soon.
“We remain, of course, open to and desirous of diplomacy … but we are also committed, if Russia takes aggressive action, to ensure there will be severe consequence,” Harris said at the annual Munich Security Conference.
While Russia snubbed this year’s conference, lines of communication remain open: The U.S. and Russian defense chiefs spoke Friday, and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called for de-escalation, the return of Russian forces surrounding Ukraine to their home bases, and a diplomatic resolution, according to the Pentagon. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, agreed to meet next Wednesday.
The immediate concern is for eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian rebel forces are fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014. This conflict has claimed the lives of approximately 14,000 people.
According to an Associated Press journalist, a bomb struck a vehicle outside Donetsk’s main government building. The head of the separatists’ forces, Denis Sinenkov, said the car was his, the Interfax news agency reported.
The blast was not confirmed by independent sources and reports did not include any casualties. Uniformed men examined the wrecked car. The area was littered with broken glass.
While shelling and shooting is common at the border between the Ukrainian forces and rebels, targeted violence in rebel-held areas like Donetsk is rare.
The announcement of evacuations and an explosion were however in accordance with U.S. warnings regarding so-called False Flag Attacks that Russia might use to justify an invasion.
Separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions that form Ukraine’s industrial heartland known as the Donbas said they are evacuating civilians to Russia. The announcement appeared to be part of Moscow’s efforts to counter Western warnings of a Russian invasion and to paint Ukraine as the aggressor instead.
Denis Pushilin (head of Donetsk rebel government) stated that children, women and seniors would be the first to go and that Russia had prepared facilities. Pushilin stated in a video, that Volodymyr Zeleskyy, Ukrainian President was planning to launch an attack in the vicinity.
The Associated Press confirms that metadata taken from the videos by separatists announcing evacuation shows the files were created on two days ago. The United States authorities claim that the Kremlin had plans to include prerecorded video as part of disinformation campaigns.
The authorities began to move children out of a Donetsk orphanage, while other people boarded buses bound for Russia. When more people were ready to go on their own, gas stations became crowded with long lines.
Putin directed his emergency minister to fly to Rostov, bordering Ukraine, to organize the exodus. He also ordered that the government offer 10,000 rubles ($130) each evacuee. This is roughly half the average monthly wage in war-ravaged Donbas.
Ukraine denied planning any offensive, with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba saying that “Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas.”
“We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only,” he tweeted.
Around the volatile line of contact, a UNCHR convoy came under rebel shelling in the Luhansk region, Ukraine’s military chief said. Reports of casualties are not available. The rebels deny involvement in the incident and accuse Ukraine of provocations.
Separatist officials reported that Ukrainian forces had continued to shell the area. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the situation is “potentially very dangerous.” A surge of shelling Thursday tore through the walls of a kindergarten, injuring two, and basic communications were disrupted. Both parties accused one another of starting fire.
U.S. officials and European officials are on alert for Russian efforts to launch a false flag operation. According to a Western source familiar with intelligence reports, Ukrainian officials may have shared information suggesting that the Russians could attempt to attack the Luhansk area controlled by separatists. This was in an effort to give false reasons to military action. This official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the threat to global security is “more complex and probably higher” than during the Cold War. The Munich conference heard from Guterres that even a minor error or miscommunication could lead to catastrophic results.
While Russia announced this week it is pulling back forces from vast military exercises that had sparked fears of an invasion, U.S. officials have said they see no sign of a pullback — and instead saw more troops moving toward the border with Ukraine.
The White House and the U.K. formally accused Russia of being responsible for recent cyberattacks targeting Ukraine’s defense ministry and major banks. This was perhaps the strongest statement of responsibility regarding the cyber intrudes.
The U.S. government also released estimates Friday of the number and location of Russian military personnel in Ukraine. The U.S. permanent representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Michael Carpenter, stated that the number of personnel in Ukraine ranges from 169,000 to 195,000. This was an increase over the 100,000 people who were there on Jan. 30.
This new estimate also includes troops in the area bordering Belarus and in occupied Crimea, as well as Russian National Guards and other security units that are deployed in these regions; and Russian-backed forces within eastern Ukraine. US estimates of 150,000 did not include the separatists in Ukraine, Russian National Guard or troops in Crimea.
In a message to the world, the Kremlin announced that it would be conducting drills with its nuclear forces this weekend. Putin will oversee the large-scale exercise, which will see multiple practice missile launch.
Russian diplomacy offered to continue defusing the Ukraine crisis was overshadowed by this move.
While the Kremlin insists it has no plans to invade, it has urged the West to keep Ukraine out of NATO and roll back alliance forces from Eastern Europe — demands roundly rejected by Western allies.
Asked about Western warnings of a possible Russian invasion on Wednesday that didn’t materialize, Putin said, “There are so many false claims, and constantly reacting to them is more trouble than it’s worth.”
“We are doing what we consider necessary and will keep doing so,” he said. “We have clear and precise goals conforming to national interests.”
Putin reaffirmed that Russia was open for dialogue on confidence-building measures with the West on condition that they will be discussed in conjunction with Moscow’s main security demands.
NATO allies are also showing their power by bolstering Eastern European military forces, though they insist these actions are defensive in nature and intended to be united against Russian threats.
The U.S. has announced that it will sell 250 tanks worth $6 billion to Poland. Poland is a NATO member and was previously occupied by or attacked Russia.
Biden called trans-Atlantic leaders on Friday to discuss the crisis, continued diplomatic efforts and deterrence. He also gave a speech regarding the current situation.