US says Russia is preparing pretext to invade Ukraine

Russia denies planning to invade its neighbor and has accused Western leaders of hysteria. This week it said it was pulling back some of the more than 100,000 troops it has massed near the frontier with Ukraine and on Thursday it said some had returned to bases from Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

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MOSCOW/KYIV: US President Joe Biden said on Thursday there was now every indication Russia was planning to invade Ukraine in the next few days and was preparing a pretext to justify it, after Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow rebels traded fire in eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin accused Biden of stoking tension and released a strongly worded letter that said Washington was ignoring its security demands and threatened unspecified “military-technical measures.”

Moscow also ordered the expulsion of the number two official from the US embassy.

Early morning exchanges of fire between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists — who have been at war for years and where a cease-fire is periodically violated — triggered an alarm. Western officials who have long warned that Moscow could try to create a scenario to justify an invasion said they believed that was now unfolding.

“We have reason to believe they are engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in. Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine and attack Ukraine,” Biden told reporters at the White House.

Biden ordered Secretary of State Antony Blinken to change his travel plans at the last minute to speak at a United Nations Security Council meeting in Ukraine.

Blinken outlined to the Council what he said were possible scenarios Russia could create to justify an invasion.

“This could be a violent event that Russia will bring on Ukraine or an outrageous accusation that Russia will level against the Ukrainian government,” Blinken said.

“It could be a fabricated so-called terrorist bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of a mass grave, a staged drone strike against civilians, or a fake — even a real — attack using chemical weapons. Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing, or a genocide.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin said Blinken’s comments were regrettable and dangerous and that some Russian soldiers were returning to home bases. Russia also distributed a letter to UN Security Council members accusing Ukrainian authorities of “exterminating” civilians in the east.

Russia denies planning to invade its neighbor and has accused Western leaders of hysteria. This week it said it was pulling back some of the more than 100,000 troops it has massed near the frontier with Ukraine and on Thursday it said some had returned to bases from Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Washington says Russia is not withdrawing, but in fact sending more forces. White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said on Thursday Washington had confirmed that Russia had added 7,000 troops to its presence at the Ukrainian border over the past 24 hours, a cause of “serious concern.”

“We see them fly in more combat and support aircraft. We see them sharpen their readiness in the Black Sea,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at NATO headquarters in Brussels. “We even see them stocking up their blood supplies.”

“I was a soldier myself not that long ago. I know firsthand that you don’t do these sorts of things for no reason,” said Austin, a retired Army general. “And you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home.”

Russia’s defense ministry released video it said showed more Russian units leaving the area near the border.

Maxar Technologies, a private US company that has been tracking the build-up, said satellite images showed that, while Russia has pulled back some military equipment from near Ukraine, other hardware has arrived.

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