US Secretary of State Antony Blinken Thursday briefed the United Nations Security Council in New York about Russia's intentions of invading Ukraine and reaching its capital city of Kiev, despite Moscow's insistence there were no grounds for such concerns.
“Over the past few months, without provocation or justification, Russia has amassed more than 150,000 soldiers around Ukraine's borders. In Russia, Belarus and occupied Crimea, Russia says it is reducing those forces (but) we don't see that happening on the ground, which clearly indicates that these forces, which include ground troops, aircraft and ships, are preparing to launch an attack on Ukraine in the coming days, Blinken said.
I am here today not to start a war, but to prevent one, he added. He also 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 went on.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin had asked the UN to prevent the meeting from becoming a circus with baseless accusations saying that Russia is supposed to attack Ukraine.
This is very unfortunate, I would say even dangerous, Vershinin said, accusing the US of stirring up tension in an already very complex situation.
In the last hours, Russia distributed documents to the rest of the members of the Security Council denouncing alleged serious violations committed by Ukrainian forces, which US sources singled out as a possible justification for an invasion.
The next step, according to the US, will be government meetings at the highest level to respond to these alleged aggression and the start of the bombing of Ukraine, accompanied by a blockade of communications and cyber attacks against key institutions.
“After that, Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and outlined in detailed plans. We believe that these targets include the capital of Ukraine, Kiev, a city of 2.8 million people, Blinken said.
Vershinin insisted his country had no intention of invading Ukraine, although he devoted most of his speech to denouncing Kiev's breaches of the Minsk Agreements, which date back to 2014 which included, among other things, a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine which has been repeatedly violated.
The Council meeting to discuss the Minsk Agreements came just hours after an upsurge in clashes along the line of contact separating Ukrainian government troops from pro-Russian separatist militias backed by Moscow. Between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning some 500 explosions were recorded in the area, which have calmed down in recent hours, the observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told the Council.
European Union countries led by France and Germany denounced the calls in Russia to recognize the independence of the separatist provinces and underlined their full support for Ukrainian territorial integrity. They also expressed their concern about the buildup of Russian troops near the border and made it clear that any new military aggression by Russia against Ukraine would have enormous consequences and would carry unprecedented costs.
From the White House in Washington DC, US President Joseph Biden 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, but warned diplomacy is not dead, although Russia's Foreign Ministry indicated there was little to discuss. A false-flag incident is one in which its origin is disguised, usually in an attempt to provoke retaliation.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also pointed out Thursday that the shelling of a nursery school in the Donbas region of Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists was a “false-flag operation” aimed at discrediting the Ukrainian government. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) there were “multiple shelling incidents” on Thursday morning across the frontline in eastern Ukraine. Three people were injured in the attack in the city of Stanytsia Luhanska, which blew a hole through the wall of a nursery.
“Today, as I’m sure you’ve already picked up, a kindergarten was shelled in what we are taking to be – well, we know – was a false-flag operation designed to discredit the Ukrainians, designed to create a pretext, a spurious provocation for Russian action. “We fear very much that that is the kind of thing we will see more of over the next few days,” Johnson said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted that the attack “by pro-Russian forces is a big provocation.”
In New York, Blinken had been unable to elaborate: “We don’t know exactly” the pretext — a “so-called terrorist bombing” inside Russia, a staged drone strike, “a fake, even a real attackÖ using chemical weapons,” he said, although he did mention Russia would target “specific groups” of Ukrainians.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted that the price for removing Russian troops from the Ukrainian border was a NATO commitment not to allow the former Soviet country into the North Atlantic organization. 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 departure from Russia’s orbit.
“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,” Moscow said. “We insist on the withdrawal of all US armed forces in Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Baltics,” it went on.
Also Thursday Russia expelled the United States' deputy ambassador from Moscow.
Russia took over Ukraine’s Crimea region and began backing heavily armed separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions in 2014. Sporadic fighting remains common in the east and the Ukrainian army has accused the pro-Russian separatists of 34 ceasefire breaches, including Thursday's shelling of a kindergarten in Stanytsia-Luganska.
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.
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.
US Deputy Ambassador to Moscow Bart Gorman was asked to leave Russia in retaliation for a Russian diplomat’s groundless expulsion from Washington, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has said. We would like to make things clear regarding the departure of the deputy chief of the US diplomatic mission in Moscow, Bart Gorman, which some media have been trying to present as an intentional escalation on the Russian side. It is true that the US diplomat was told to leave Russia, but that was done strictly in retaliation for the groundless expulsion of a minister-counselor of our embassy in Washington, contrary to his senior diplomatic rank. Moreover, the US Department of State defiantly ignored our request for prolonging his stay at least until a substitute arrived. As a result, he had to leave without being replaced, which merely worsened the already critical shortage of personnel at the Russian embassy, which emerged as a result of the ‘visa war’ unleashed by the Americans, Zakharova explained.