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Biden says Putin has ‘made the decision’ to invade Ukraine, will likely target Kyiv

US president warns of false flag operations to justify an attack, citing US intelligence; says diplomacy still ‘a possibility’; car bombing and shelling reported near conflict line

A Ukrainian soldier walks along trench on on the front line with Russia-backed separatists near Novolugansk in the  Donetsk region of Ukraine, February 16, 2022. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP)
A Ukrainian soldier walks along trench on on the front line with Russia-backed separatists near Novolugansk in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, February 16, 2022. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP)

US President Joe Biden said Friday he is “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to launch an invasion of Ukraine, saying he has “reason to believe” it will occur in the “coming days” and will include an assault on the capital, Kyiv.

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.

“As of this moment I’m convinced he’s made the decision,” Biden said of Putin. “We have reason to believe that.”

“Until he does, diplomacy is always a possibility,” Biden added.

“We believe they will target Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million innocent people,” he said of Russian forces.

He cited the United States’ “significant intelligence capability” for the assessment.

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.

Biden said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Europe on Thursday to discuss the crisis.

Biden said Moscow is conducting a disinformation campaign, including accusing Kyiv of planning its own attack in order to create a pretext for a Russian invasion.

“There is simply no evidence to these assertions and it defies basic logic to believe the Ukrainians would choose this moment, with well over 150,000 [Russian] troops arrayed on its borders, to escalate a years-long conflict,” Biden said.

“All these are consistent with the playbook the Russians have used before to set up a false justification to act against Ukraine,” Biden said at the White House.

“Russia has a choice — between war and all the suffering it will bring, or diplomacy,” Biden said.

US President Joe Biden speaks about Ukraine in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Feb. 18, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Kremlin insists it has no plans to attack its neighbor, which has angered Russia by seeking long-term integration with NATO and the European Union.

However, the United States says that with an estimated 149,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders — as many as 190,000, when including the Russian-backed separatist forces in the east — Russia has laid the groundwork for war.

Adding to jitters, Russia’s defense ministry announced that Putin would personally oversee previously scheduled drills involving nuclear-capable missiles on Saturday.

And on the ground in Ukraine’s disputed east, sporadic clashes fed a growing sense of dread.

An AFP reporter near the front between Ukrainian government forces and the pro-Russian territory in the Lugansk region heard explosions and saw damaged civilian buildings on Kyiv’s side of the line.

There were growing fears that only a spark — which Washington warns could be a deliberate “false flag” incident created by the Russians — might now be needed to set off the largest military confrontation in Europe since World War II.

A man stands in a crater from an artillery shell in eastern Ukraine, on February 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

A US defense official said that 40 to 50 percent of the troops surrounding Ukraine have moved into attack positions nearer to 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.

Biden spoke on Friday with fellow NATO allies in a conference call to cement plans for Western economic sanctions against Russia should its troops attack Ukraine.

According to a senior official, the sanctions package will be devastating.

“If Russia invades Ukraine, it would become a pariah to the international community,” the deputy US national security advisor for international economics Daleep Singh told reporters. “It will become isolated from global financial markets and be deprived of the most sophisticated technological inputs.”

Singh predicted “intense capital outflows, mounting pressure on its currency, surging inflation, higher borrowing costs, economic contraction, and the erosion of its productive capacity.”

Ukrainian servicemen walk on an armored fighting vehicle during an exercise in a Joint Forces Operation controlled area in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Feb. 10, 2022.(AP/Vadim Ghirda)

In the eastern separatist areas of Donetsk and Lugansk, Moscow-backed leaders sought to flip the narrative of Russia being the aggressor.

Accusing Kyiv of planning its own offensive to retake the eastern territories, they said the government’s forces were carrying out sabotage missions. Civilians were ordered to evacuate.

Blinken accused the Kremlin of mounting a propaganda campaign to create an excuse for war.

Blinken told the Munich Security Conference what has happened “in the last 24 to 48 hours is part of a scenario that is already in place of creating false provocations, of then having to respond to those provocations and then ultimately committing new aggression against Ukraine.”

Both sides in the east of Ukraine claimed the other was stepping up the violence amid low-level exchanges of fire.

In this photo taken from a footage distributed by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Sept. 26, 2020, Russian rockets launch from missile systems during the main stage of the Kavkaz-2020 strategic command-and-staff exercises at the Kapustin Yar training ground, Russia. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

A bombing struck a car outside the main government building in the major eastern city of Donetsk, according to an Associated Press journalist there. The head of the separatists’ forces, Denis Sinenkov, said the car was his, the Interfax news agency reported.

There were no reports of casualties and no independent confirmation of the circumstances of the blast. Uniformed men inspected the burned-out car and broken glass littered the area.

Shelling and shooting are common along the line that separates Ukrainian forces and the rebels, but targeted violence is unusual in rebel-held cities like Donetsk.

The explosion and the announced evacuations were in line with US warnings of so-called false-flag attacks that Russia would 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.

A Ukrainian serviceman carries an NLAW anti-tank weapon during an exercise in the Joint Forces Operation, in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, February 15, 2022. (AP/Vadim Ghirda, File)

Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk rebel government, said women, children and the elderly would go first, and that Russia has prepared facilities for them. Pushilin alleged in a video statement that Zelensky was going to order an imminent offensive in the area.

Metadata from two videos posted by the separatists announcing the evacuation show that the files were created two days ago, The Associated Press confirmed. US authorities have alleged that Kremlin plans included prerecorded videos as part of a disinformation campaign.

Ukraine denied planning any offensive, with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba saying that “Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas.”

Around the volatile line of contact, a UNCHR convoy came under rebel shelling in the Luhansk region, Ukraine’s military chief said. No casualties were reported. Rebels denied involvement and accused Ukraine of staging a provocation. Separatist authorities reported more shelling by Ukrainian forces along the line.

The White House and the UK formally accused Russia of being responsible for recent cyberattacks targeting Ukraine’s defense ministry and major banks. The announcement was the most pointed attribution of responsibility for the cyber intrusions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a cabinet meeting via a videoconference at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, January 12, 2022 (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

In Moscow, Putin met with the authoritarian leader of Belarus, which is hosting tens of thousands of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, and said he saw a “deterioration of the situation.”

The Ukrainian command said the Russian-backed separatist forces had violated a ceasefire 53 times between midnight and 5:00 p.m. Friday.

Twenty children and 18 adults at a kindergarten in the government-held village of Stanytsia Luganska were lucky to escape almost completely unharmed on Thursday when an artillery shell struck the building.

Russia says that it will not back away from Ukraine unless Western countries agree never to allow Ukraine into NATO and to pull US forces back from eastern Europe, effectively creating a new version of the continent’s Cold War-era spheres of influence.

The conflict between the heavily armed pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces in the country’s east has already rumbled on for eight years, claiming the lives of more than 14,000 people and forcing more than 1.5 million from their homes.

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