Russia-Ukraine news: Biden says US has reason to believe Putin ‘intends to attack’ in coming days

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden said on Friday he was “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had moved to invade Ukraine, including an assault on the capital, as tensions mount along the border militarized with attacks that the West has called “false flag” operations designed to establish a pretext for invasion.

A humanitarian convoy was hit by shelling and pro-Russian rebels evacuated civilians from the conflict zone. A car bomb attack hit the eastern city of Donetsk, but no casualties were reported.

After saying for weeks that the United States was unsure whether Putin had made the final decision to invade, Biden said the assessment had changed, citing US intelligence.

“From that point on, I’m confident he made the decision,” Biden said. “We have reason to believe that.” He reiterated that the attack could happen in the “coming days”.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has announced massive nuclear exercises to flex its military strength, and Putin has pledged to protect Russia’s national interests against what he sees as encroaching Western threats.

“That’s what I expected,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Illinois.) “The Kremlin’s playbook is in full swing right now. Disinformation, propaganda, cyberattacks, threat of use subversive energy sources. And they clearly recognize that by flanking Ukraine and terrorizing the country, they have destabilized it. They have had a dramatic impact on their economy.

Biden reiterated his threat of massive economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia if it invaded, and urged Putin to rethink his course of action. He said the United States and its Western allies were more united than ever to make sure Russia paid the price for the invasion.

With around 150,000 Russian troops stationed around Ukraine’s borders, US and European officials are warning that the long-simmering separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine could spark a wider attack.

As a further indication that the Russians are preparing for a possible invasion, a US defense official said that about 40-50% of the ground forces deployed near the Ukrainian border have moved to attack positions closer to the border. This shift has been in the works for about a week, other officials said, and does not necessarily mean Putin has decided to begin an invasion. The defense official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. military assessments.

The official also said the number of Russian ground units known as battalion battle groups deployed in the border area had risen to 125 from 83 two weeks ago. Each battalion battle group has 750 to 1,000 soldiers.

Lines of communication remain open: US and Russian defense chiefs spoke on Friday, and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called for de-escalation, the return of Russian forces surrounding Ukraine to their bases. origin and a diplomatic resolution, according to the Pentagon. State Secretary Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have agreed to meet next week.

Immediate concerns centered on eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russian rebels since 2014 in a conflict that has claimed some 14,000 lives.

A bomb attack hit a car outside the main government building in the major eastern city of Donetsk, according to an Associated Press reporter. The leader of the separatist forces, Denis Sinenkov, said the car was his, the Interfax news agency reported.

There have been no reports of casualties and no independent confirmation of the circumstances of the explosion. Uniformed men inspected the burnt-out car.

Shelling and gunfire are common along the line between Ukrainian forces and rebels, but targeted violence is unusual in rebel-held towns like Donetsk.

However, the explosion and announced evacuations were in line with American warnings of so-called false flag attacks that Russia would use to justify an invasion.

Adding to tensions, two explosions rocked the rebel-held city of Lugansk on Saturday morning. The Luhansk Information Center said one of the explosions occurred at a natural gas line and quoted witnesses as saying the other was at a vehicle service station. There was no immediate word on injuries or a cause. Lugansk officials blamed a gas main explosion earlier in the week on sabotage.

Separatists from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which form Ukraine’s industrial heartland known as Donbass, said they were evacuating civilians to Russia. The announcement appears to be part of Moscow’s effort to counter Western warnings of a Russian invasion and portray Ukraine as the aggressor instead.

Denis Pushilin, head of the rebel Donetsk government, said women, children and the elderly would come first and that Russia had prepared facilities for them. Pushilin alleged in a video statement that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was going to order an imminent offensive in the region.

Metadata from two videos released by the separatists announcing the evacuation show the files were created two days ago, the Associated Press confirmed. US authorities have alleged that the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign may include pre-recorded videos.

Authorities began moving children from an orphanage in Donetsk, and other residents boarded buses for Russia. Long queues formed at gas stations as more people prepared to leave on their own.

Putin ordered his emergencies minister to the Rostov region bordering Ukraine to help organize the exodus and ordered the government to offer a payment of 10,000 rubles (about $130) to each evacuee, equivalent to about half of an average monthly wage during the war. ravaged the Donbass.

Ukraine has denied planning any offensive.

“We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.

Around the unstable line of contact, a United Nations humanitarian convoy was shelled by rebels in the Lugansk region, the Ukrainian military chief said. No casualties were reported. The rebels denied any involvement and accused Ukraine of staging a provocation.

Separatist authorities reported further shelling by Ukrainian forces along the line. A wave of shelling on Thursday ripped through the walls of a kindergarten, injuring two, and basic communications were disrupted. Both sides accuse each other of opening fire.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the threat to global security was “more complex and probably higher” than during the Cold War. He told the Munich conference that a small mistake or miscommunication between the major powers could have catastrophic consequences.

Russia announced this week that it was withdrawing its forces from extensive military exercises, but US officials said they saw no signs of a withdrawal – and instead saw more troops heading towards the border with Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the White House and the UK have officially blamed Russia for recent cyberattacks targeting Ukraine’s Defense Ministry and major banks. The announcement was the sharpest attribution of blame for cyber intrusions.

Also on Friday, the US government released new estimates of the number of Russian military personnel in and around Ukraine. He said there were between 169,000 and 190,000 people, down from around 100,000 on Jan. 30, according to Michael Carpenter, the US permanent representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The new estimate includes military troops along the border, in Belarus and occupied Crimea, as well as the Russian National Guard and other internal security units, and Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine. . Separatists in Ukraine, National Guard and troops in Crimea were not included in the previous US estimate of 150,000.

The Kremlin reminded the world of its nuclear power, announcing exercises of its nuclear forces for the weekend. Putin will monitor the sweeping exercise on Saturday which will involve several practice missile launches.

Asked Wednesday about Western warnings of a possible Russian invasion that failed to materialize, Putin said: “There are so many misrepresentations, and constantly reacting to them is more problematic than it’s worth.”

“We are doing what we believe is necessary and we will continue to do so,” he said. “We have clear and precise objectives in line with national interests.”

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Isachenkov reported from Moscow, Madhani from Munich and Miller from Washington. Jim Heintz in Moscow, Matthew Lee and Karl Ritter in Munich, Inna Varenytsia in Sieverodonetsk, Ukraine, Mstyslav Chernov in Bakhmut, Ukraine, Jill Lawless in London, Raf Casert in Brussels, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Ellen Knickmeyer, Josh Boak, Robert Burns and Lolita Baldor in Washington, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Christi C. Elwood