Kyiv and Moscow blamed each other for clashes in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region on Thursday as western officials continued to question Russia’s claims it had withdrawn troops from close to Ukraine’s border.
The Ukrainian army said "Russian occupation forces" controlling breakaway far-eastern regions of Ukraine in the Donbas had "with special cynicism" shelled a kindergarten in a village in the Luhansk region, injuring two civilians. It later said shelling was occurring in more than 20 separate locations in eastern Ukraine as unconfirmed videos including the sound of live fire appeared on social media.
Russia – which backs separatists in the Donbas but denies, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that it is a party to the conflict there – blamed Ukraine for the escalation. Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin, said the shelling "was a subject of very, very deep concern".
“We have warned many times that Ukraine’s excessive concentration of its armed forces next to the line of contact, along with the possibility of provocations, could be highly dangerous. And now we can see these provocations are happening,” Mr Peskov told reporters.
The flare-up was the latest in a smouldering conflict that has claimed about 14,000 lives in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk since erupting in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
A statement posted on the website of Donetsk-based Russia-backed separatists said: “The situation on the line of contact has escalated significantly over the past few hours.”
Pointing to the shelling of the Luhansk village of Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a tweet: “We call on all partners to swiftly condemn this severe violation of Minsk [peace] agreements by Russia amid an already tense security situation.”
US president Joe Biden has said his "sense" is that Russia will invade Ukraine within the next several days.
Speaking to reporters as he left the White House for a visit to Cleveland, he said the prospect of a Russian attack on Ukraine was "very high". He said Russia could engage in a "false flag" operation as an excuse to "go in" to Ukraine.
Asked if he believed a diplomatic resolution was still possible, Mr Biden said: “Yes.”
He said he had no plans to call Mr Putin and he had not yet seen a response by Russia to security proposals made by the US.
Mr Biden ordered US secretary of state Antony Blinken to change his travel plans at the last minute to speak at a UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine on Thursday.
Mr Blinken told the council that Russia planned to manufacture a pretext for an invasion in coming days. “This could be a violent event that Russia will bring on Ukraine, or an outrageous accusation that Russia will level against the Ukrainian government,” Mr 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 UN under-secretary general for political and peacebuilding affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, told the meeting that the current situation on the Ukrainian border is “extremely dangerous”. She added: “The [UN] secretary general has remained fully engaged with key actors, including the governments of the Russian Federation and Ukraine, and has reiterated the same unambiguous message: there is no alternative to diplomacy.”
The US state department said on Thursday Russia ordered the deputy chief of mission to the US embassy in Moscow, Bart Gorman, to leave the country, calling the move “unprovoked” and “an escalatory step”. Russia provided no details of why he was expelled.
The increased fighting in Donbas comes as the US, UK and Nato continued to rebut Russia's claims this week that it was pulling back some of its forces from the border with Ukraine and in Crimea as well as Donbas.
The White House late on Wednesday called the Kremlin’s claims that it is withdrawing forces from the Ukrainian border “false” and accused Russia of increasing its troop presence in the region by about 7,000 in recent days.
Jim Hockenhull, the UK's defence intelligence chief, said Britain had sightings of "additional [Russian] armoured vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital moving towards Ukraine's borders".
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, accused the West of fanning “hysteria” by accusing Moscow of not withdrawing its troops. “This is where the escalation is, in [how] they are constantly filling people’s minds with these threats and scare stories,” Mr Lavrov said after meeting his Italian counterpart Luigi Di Maio, Interfax reported.
The Thursday flare-up has also raised fears that Mr Putin – who has massed more than 150,000 troops around Ukraine – could use it as a pretext to invade the country. The US and UK have repeatedly warned that Moscow could orchestrate a “false flag” operation to justify a deeper incursion into Ukraine.
"Russia's claim of genocide in Ukraine is a reprehensible falsehood," the US mission to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said in an overnight tweet, referring to a claim this week by Mr Putin that Kyiv was conducting a "genocide" in Donbas.
The OSCE's special monitoring mission in Ukraine "has complete access to the government-controlled areas of Ukraine and has never reported anything remotely resembling Russia's claims", the mission added. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022/Additional reporting: Reuters/AP