Fears of a new war in Europe resurged on Thursday as President Joe Biden warned Russia could invade Ukraine within days, and violence in eastern Ukraine could provide the spark for wider conflict.
World dignitaries raced for solutions, but suspicions between East and West only seemed to grow, as NATO allies rejected Russian assertions it was pulling back troops. Russia is believed to have built up some 150,000 military forces around Ukraine’s borders.
Concerns escalated in the West over what exactly Russia is doing with those troops, which included an estimated 60 per cent of Russia’s overall ground forces. The Kremlin insists it has no plans to invade, but it has long considered Ukraine part of its sphere of influence and NATO’s eastward expansion an existential threat.
The US government issued some of its starkest, most detailed warnings yet about what could happen next.
Speaking at the White House, President Biden said Washington saw no signs of a promised Russian withdrawal, and said the invasion threat remains “very high”.
“Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine,” Biden told reporters. He said the US has “reason to believe” that Russia is “engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in,” but did not provide details.
The White House said Biden planned to speak by phone on Friday with trans-Atlantic leaders about Russia’s military build-up and continued efforts at deterrence and diplomacy.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also revealed some conclusions of US intelligence in a strategy that they and Britain have hoped will expose and pre-empt any invasion planning. The US has declined to reveal much of the evidence underlying its claims.
He said a sudden, seemingly violent event staged by Russia to justify invasion would kick it off and mentioned a “so-called terrorist bombing” inside Russia, a staged drone strike, “a fake, even a real attack … using chemical weapons".
US and European officials on high alert
US and European officials were on high alert for any Russian attempts to create a pretext for invasion, according to a Western official familiar with intelligence findings.
Even without an attack, the sustained Russian pressure on Ukraine has further hobbled its shaky economy and left an entire nation under constant strain. Eastern Ukraine already has been the site of fighting since 2014 that has killed 14,000, and tensions soared again on Thursday.
A 2015 deal brokered by France and Germany helped end the worst of the fighting, but regular skirmishes have continued and a political settlement has stalled.
Western powers scrambled to avert, or prepare for, eventual invasion. NATO’s defence ministers discussed ways to bolster defences in Eastern Europe, while EU leaders huddled over how to punish Russia if it invades.
An increase in troops
At NATO headquarters in Brussels, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin questioned the Russian troop pullout claims.
“We’ve seen some of those troops inch closer to that border. We see them fly in more combat and support aircraft,” he said.
“We see them sharpen their readiness in the Black Sea. We even see them stocking up their blood supplies. You don’t do these sort of things for no reason, and you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home.”
British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the West has seen “an increase of troops over the last 48 hours, up to 7,000.” That squared with what a US administration official said a day earlier.
Russia says the pullout, announced earlier this week, will take time after holding out a new offer of diplomacy on Thursday, handing the US a response to offers to engage in talks on limiting missile deployments in Europe, restrictions on military drills and other confidence-building measures.
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