Challenging Kremlin, US says Russia planning ‘false flag’ pretext for Ukraine war

Secretary of State Antony Blinken tells UN Moscow could order assault in ‘coming days’ after ‘staged’ attack: ‘I am here today not to start a war, but to prevent one’

Military helicopters fly over the Osipovichi training ground during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills near Osipovichi, Belarus, on February 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr.)
Military helicopters fly over the Osipovichi training ground during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills near Osipovichi, Belarus, on February 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr.)

The United States said Thursday that Russia is on the verge of unleashing a massive military attack against Ukraine, dismissing Moscow’s claim to be pulling forces back, as artillery fire hit a Ukrainian kindergarten.

In a dramatic, previously unscheduled speech to the United Nations in New York, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said intelligence showed Moscow could order an assault on its neighbor in the “coming days.”

With US and other Western governments saying they see no evidence to support Russia’s claim to be withdrawing, Blinken challenged the Kremlin to “announce today with no qualification, equivocation or deflection that Russia will not invade Ukraine. State it clearly. State it plainly to the world.”

“Demonstrate it by sending your troops, your tanks, your planes, back to their barracks and hangers, and sending your diplomats to the negotiating table,” he said.

He told the diplomats that a sudden, seemingly violent event staged by Russia to justify an invasion could further escalate events into the realm of war.

“We don’t know exactly” the pretext — a “so-called terrorist bombing” inside Russia, a staged drone strike, “a fake, even a real attack… using chemical weapons,” he said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses the United Nations Security Council, on February 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

It would open with cyberattacks, along with missiles and bombs across Ukraine, he said. Painting the US picture further, Blinken described the entry of Russian troops, advancing on Kyiv, a city of nearly 3 million, and other key targets.

US intelligence indicated Russia also would target “specific groups” of Ukrainians, Blinken said, again without giving details.

In an implicit nod to Secretary of State Colin Powell’s appearance before the Security Council in 2003, when he cited unsubstantiated and false US intelligence to justify the US invasion of Iraq, Blinken added: “Let me be clear. I am here today not to start a war, but to prevent one.”

US President Joe Biden, at the White House, also accused Moscow of preparing a “false flag operation” as a pretext for an attack and said this could happen “in the next several days.”

He said the invasion threat remains “very high” because Russia has moved more troops toward the border with Ukraine instead of pulling them back.

“They have not moved any of their troops out. They’ve moved more troops in,” Biden said. “Every indication we have is that they’re prepared to go into Ukraine.”

He added, however, that diplomacy is not dead. “There is a path. There is a way through this,” he said.

‘Forced to respond’

Russia has massed enormous air, land, and sea forces around Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin and officials say they do not plan to invade Ukraine and that the troops are only conducting practice exercises.

However, Putin has made clear that the price for removing any threat would be Ukraine agreeing never to join NATO and for the Western alliance to pull back from a swath of eastern Europe, effectively splitting the continent into Cold War-style spheres of influence.

Ukraine is far from being ready to join NATO, but has set this as part of a broader goal to integrate with the democracies of western Europe, making a historic break from Russia’s orbit.

The US said Thursday that it had received Putin’s response to its offers of a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but did not give any reaction to the contents.

The Russian foreign ministry indicated that there was little to discuss.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking during a meeting on economic issues via videoconference in Moscow, Russia, on February 17, 2022. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

“In the absence of will on the American side to negotiate firm and legally binding guarantees on our security from the United States and its allies, Russia will be forced to respond, including with military-technical measures,” the foreign ministry said.

“We insist on the withdrawal of all US armed forces in Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Baltics,” it added.

Russia also expelled the number two US diplomat in Moscow, the US State Department said, condemning the “unprovoked” action.

Artillery fire on kindergarten

Russia took over Ukraine’s Crimea region and began backing heavily armed separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions in 2014, sparking a war that has already cost thousands of lives.

Sporadic fighting remains common in the east and the Ukrainian army accused the pro-Russian separatists of 34 ceasefire breaches on Thursday, 28 of them using heavy weapons.

The potentially most serious incident — an example of the kind of spark that many fear could ignite far more intense fighting — was the shelling of a kindergarten in the village of Stanytsia-Luganska. Children were inside but none were hit.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted that the attack “by pro-Russian forces is a big provocation.”

This handout photo released by Ukrainian Joint Forces Operation, shows a view of a kindergarten building after alleged shelling by separatists forces in Stanytsia Luhanska, eastern Ukraine, on February 17, 2022. (Joint Forces Operation via AP)

Russian news agencies meanwhile quoted authorities in the separatist Lugansk region saying they blamed Kyiv after the situation on the frontline “escalated significantly.”

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described Thursday’s reports as “troubling.”

“We’ve said for some time that the Russians might do something like this in order to justify a military conflict. So we’ll be watching this very closely,” Austin told journalists after a meeting with NATO counterparts.

Putin earlier this week claimed with no evidence that Ukraine is committing “genocide” in the eastern region.

Disputed pull-out

Moscow has made several announcements of troop withdrawals this week and, on Thursday, said that units of the southern and western military districts, including tank units, had begun returning to their bases from near Ukraine.

Defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said some troops had returned to their garrisons in several areas far from the border, including Chechnya and Dagestan in the North Caucasus, and near Nizhny Novgorod, some 300 kilometers (185 miles) east of Moscow.

Russian army tanks are loaded onto railway platforms to move back to their permanent base after drills in Russia, on February 16, 2022. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

After previously announced withdrawals earlier this week, the US, NATO, and Ukraine all said they had seen no evidence of a pullback, with Washington saying Russia had in fact moved 7,000 more troops near the border.

Zelensky said Thursday his country was not looking for foreign forces within its borders.

“We have no need for soldiers with foreign flags on our territory. We are not asking for that. Otherwise, the entire world would be destabilized,” he told the RBK Ukraine website.

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