U.S. secretary of state says Russia will create pretext for Ukraine attack in 'coming days'
Russia says U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's claims are 'baseless'
- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Russia "plans to manufacture a pretext" for attack on Ukraine in the coming days.
- Russian deputy foreign minister says the military scenarios put forth are "regrettable" and "dangerous."
- Canada considers sending more troops to Europe as the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine persists.
- Russia says it expelled the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Moscow in response to the U.S. expulsion of a senior official at the Russian embassy in Washington.
- Biden says threat of Russian invasion of Ukraine is "very high."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday warned that Russian forces are preparing to launch an attack against Ukraine in the "coming days."
Addressing a meeting of the UN Security Council, Blinken said Russia "plans to manufacture a pretext" for an attack on its neighbour.
"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."
The U.S. has declined to reveal much of the evidence underlying its claims.
Diplomacy is "the only responsible way" to resolve the crisis, Blinken said, adding "I am here today not to start a war, but to prevent one."
Blinken said he has sent a letter to Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, proposing a meeting in person next week. He also called on Russia to state clearly and plainly during the meeting that it would not invade Ukraine.
Speaking before Blinken, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin appealed to council members not to turn the meeting "into a circus" by presenting a "baseless accusation saying that Russia allegedly was going to attack Ukraine."
Vershinin said the military scenarios put forth by Blinken are "regrettable" and "dangerous."
He also told the UN Security Council some Russian soldiers are returning to home bases, but Western countries say they are not convinced.
The United States and NATO said Russia is in fact sending more forces. British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the West has seen "an increase of troops over the last 48 hours, up to 7,000." That squared with what a U.S. administration official said a day earlier.
The 15-member Security Council met to discuss the Minsk agreements, endorsed by the council in 2015, which aim to end a long-running conflict between the Ukrainian army and Russia-backed separatists in the country's east.
But the meeting came amid high tensions after the United States accused Russia of deploying around 150,000 troops near Ukraine's borders in recent weeks. Russia has maintained it has no plans to invade Ukraine and accuses the West of hysteria.
The UN meeting came after U.S. President Joe Biden said Thursday that there is a "very high" risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and that could happen within "several days." Speaking at the White House, Biden said the U.S. saw no signs of a claimed Russian withdrawal of forces along its border with Ukraine.
U.S. official expelled from Moscow
Meanwhile, the Kremlin accused Biden of stoking tension and released a strongly worded letter which accused Washington of ignoring its security demands and threatened unspecified "military-technical measures."
A U.S. Embassy spokesperson told a Russian news agency on Thursday that Russia has expelled the deputy chief of the U.S. mission in Moscow. Jason Rebholz told the state RIA Novosti news agency that Bart Gorman was second in command in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and had an open visa. He spent less than three years in Moscow, the report said.
Russia said later on Thursday it had ordered the No. 2 diplomat at the U.S. embassy to leave the country in response to the U.S. expulsion of a senior official at the Russian embassy in Washington.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement explaining the expulsion of Gorman in response to what it said were media reports presenting it as "almost a deliberate escalation on the Russian side."
"The American diplomat was indeed ordered to leave Russia, but strictly in response to the unreasonable expulsion of the minister-counsellor of our embassy in Washington, despite his status as a leading official," the ministry said.
Earlier on Thursday, Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces traded accusations of firing shells across the ceasefire line in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
The head of the monitoring mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Yasar Halit Cevik, said it reported 500 explosions along the contact line from Wednesday evening to Thursday. Cevik told the Security Council the tensions then appeared to ease, with about 30 blasts reported.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted that the kindergarten shelling "by pro-Russian forces is a big provocation."
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov countered with the same: "We have repeatedly warned that the excessive concentration of Ukrainian armed forces in the immediate vicinity of the line of demarcation, coupled with possible provocations, could pose a terrible danger."
Western officials, who have long warned that Moscow could try to create a pretext for an invasion, are saying they believe such a scenario is now unfolding.
Adding to the friction is a bid by Russia's parliament this week to recognize the separatists in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which broke away in 2014 and proclaimed themselves independent, sparking conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has yet to approve Tuesday's request by the Russian parliament, and has declined to say how he will respond.
Britain said on Thursday that the request showed "flagrant disregard" for Moscow's peace process commitments.
"If this request were accepted, it would represent a further attack on Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, signal an end to the Minsk process and demonstrate a Russian decision to choose a path of confrontation over dialogue," British foreign minister Liz Truss said on Thursday.
Canada considers sending more troops to Europe
There were signs Thursday the Canadian government was prepared to deploy additional Canadian troops to eastern Europe to shore up NATO defences.
In a telephone exchange with Canadian journalists from Mons, Belgium, Defence Minister Anita Anand said Thursday the military is examining its "capacity" and ability to sustain multiple commitments of troops, planes and ships in other missions around the world.
NATO, meanwhile, has moved troops and military equipment into Eastern Europe in a display of resolve meant to deter any Russian aggression and underline its intent to defend NATO's eastern members in the unlikely event that they too become a target.
The U.S. has started deploying 5,000 troops to Poland and Romania. Another 8,500 are on standby, and some are expected to move toward Bulgaria.
Britain is sending hundreds of soldiers to Poland, offering more warships and planes, and doubling its personnel in Estonia. Germany, the Netherlands and Norway are sending troops to Lithuania. Denmark and Spain are providing jets to police the Baltic Sea region, and Spain also deployed some to Bulgaria.
The UN Security Council has met dozens of times to discuss the Ukraine crisis since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014. It cannot take any action because Russia is a veto power, along with France, Britain, China and the United States.
With files from The Associated Press