US president Joe Biden says he is "convinced" 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 militarised border with attacks that the West called “false-flag” operations meant to establish a pretext for invasion.
On Friday, a humanitarian convoy was hit by shelling and pro-Russian rebels evacuated civilians from the conflict zone. A car bombing hit the eastern city of Donetsk, but no casualties were reported.
After weeks of saying the US 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 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 his threat of massive economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia if it does invade, and pressed Putin to rethink his course of action.
He said the US and its Western allies were more united than ever to ensure Russia pays a price for the invasion.
150,000 Russian troops posted around Ukraine's border
While Putin holds out on the possibility of diplomacy, a cascade of developments this week have further exacerbated East-West tensions and fuelled war worries.
This week's actions have fed those concerns: US 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.
As a further indication the Russians continue preparations for a potential invasion, a US defence official said an estimated 40 per cent to 50 per cent of the ground forces deployed in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border have moved into attack positions nearer the border.
That shift has been under way for about a week, other officials have said, and does not necessarily mean Putin has decided to begin an invasion.
The defence official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal US military assessments.
They also said the number of Russian ground units known as battalion tactical groups deployed in the border area had grown to between 120 and 125, up from 83 two weeks ago.
Each battalion tactical group has between 750 and 1000 soldiers.
Vice-president Kamala Harris said the US still hoped Russia would de-escalate, but was ready to hit it with tough sanctions in case of an attack.
US leaders this week issued their most dire warnings yet that Moscow could order an invasion of Ukraine any day.
"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.
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