Biden Convinced Putin Has Made The Decision For Russian Forces To Invade Ukraine (Updated)
Biden warned again that the Kremlin is actively looking for pretexts to justify an invasion of Ukraine.
In a significant shift in the U.S. government's public position, President Joe Biden says that intelligence now indicates that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, has made a decision to attack Ukraine and that this operation will kick off within days. He also called out a number of recent events in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region as manufactured pretexts that American authorities believe the Kremlin plans to use to justify its offensive.
President Biden made these comments today from the White House. He also underscored that the United States would continue to do what it can to support Ukraine and its defense, to included continued deliveries of military aid, but that American forces would not be deployed to fight Russia directly in any forthcoming conflict.
"Over the last few days, we've seen reports of a major uptick in violations of the ceasefire by Russian-backed fighters attempting to provoke Ukraine in the Donbas," Biden explained. "We also continue to see more and more disinformation pushed out by the Russian public, including Russian-backed separatists claiming that Ukraine is planning to launch a massive offensive attack in the Donbas."
"Well, look, there is simply no evidence of these assertions and it defies basic logic to believe the Ukrainians would choose this moment, with well over 150,000 troops arrayed on its borders, to escalate a year-long conflict," he continued. "Russia state media also continues to make phony allegations of a genocide taking place in the Donbas and push fabricated claims warning about Ukraine's attack Russia without any evidence."
You can watch Biden's remarks and his responses to subsequent questions from the press below.
"All of these [actions] are consistent with the playbook the Russians have used before to set up a false justification to act against Ukraine," the President added. "This is also in line with the pretext scenarios that the United States and our allies and partners have been warning about for weeks."
Biden pointed out that U.S. officials and others have been continuously warning for weeks now about the multitude of ways the Kremlin might attempt to foment pretexts to launch a new military intervention into Ukraine. Just yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a meeting of the United Nations Security Council that accusations of planned Ukrainian aggression, purported or attempted chemical attacks, and claimed terrorist bombings, all of which we have seen just today, were all among the possible options available to the Kremlin and its proxies to try to kickstart a conflict.
Biden's remarks follow the Russian-backed leaders of the two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine ordering civilians to evacuate into Russia claiming that a Ukrainian attack is imminent earlier today. Denis Pushilin, head of the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic, also referred to by the acronym DNR, announced the evacuation plan earlier today, after which air raid sirens began to blare. Authorities in the Luhansk People's Republic, or LNR, subsequently issued their own evacuation order while also calling on men to take up arms.
No U.N. member states recognize the independence of either of these 'states' in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region, which split off from the rest of the country following Russia's seizure of Crimea in 2014. Russia's Duma, the country's parliament, did vote to pressure President Vladimir Putin to formally recognize them earlier this week and many of the people who live in these areas already have Russian passports.
Experts and observers have already raised questions about whether these evacuations may be scripted or staged, at least to some degree. For instance, there was a significant pro-separatist and pro-Russian media presence in place as scared orphans were led from a school. The announcements from the DNR and LNR leadership appear to have been recorded well in advance, too.
Pictures and videos showing lines of cars at gas stations would seem to show signs of a real general exodus.
The exact degree to which officials in the DNR and LNR coordinated any of this with Russian authorities is not entirely clear. "I don't know what's up with Pushilin," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said soon after the DNR issued its evacuation order. This, together with the reaction of the governor of Russia's Rostov region, which lies opposite Donbas, might suggest that at least the exact timing of these announcements was unexpected or that not everyone had been informed of the plan in advance. Officials in Rostov asked today for assistance in handling the incoming influx of people and Putin ordered Russia's Ministry of Emergency Situations to help.
Regardless, the Kremlin is clearly trying to now leverage the situation to its advantage in the context of the broader crisis surrounding Ukraine. Putin claimed earlier this week, without providing hard evidence, that residents in separatist regions of Donbas have been the victims of a "genocide."
“All that Kyiv needs to do is sit at the negotiating table with representatives of the Donbas and agree on political, military and economic measures to end the conflict,” Putin said today at a press conference alongside his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko. “Unfortunately, right now we see a deterioration of the situation in the Donbas."
As President Biden noted, authorities in the DNR and LNR, as well as the Kremlin, have not provided any evidence to back up claims that Ukraine is planning some kind of new offensive. There have been other unsubstantiated claims of major provocations against the breakaway republics in the past day or so.
Earlier today, separatists claimed that Ukrainian forces or their proxies attempted overnight to destroy tanks full of chlorine at a water treatment plant in Horlivka in Donetsk in an apparent effort to cause a major chemical accident. There were reports that a car bomb targeted Denis Sinyenkov, the DNR's top military official, too.
More recently, so-far unconfirmed reports indicate that a major explosion has occurred along a section of an oil or gas pipeline in Luhansk. There have been some suggestions this particular pipeline could be one linked to the larger Druzhba pipeline, which carries oil between Russia and Europe, but does not pass through Ukraine itself. What may have happened is unclear, but it is important to note that pipelines in Donbas have suffered damage for benign reasons in the past.
"We categorically refute Russian disinformation reports on Ukraine’s alleged offensive operations or acts of sabotage in chemical production facilities," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter in regards to these various accusations. "Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas. We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only."
Ukrainian troops and Russian-supported forces in Donbas have been engaged in an active, but relatively low-level conflict since 2014. In the past few days, there has been a noticeable uptick in artillery fire along the so-called Line of Contact that separates the opposing sides.
"Close to 600 explosions were recorded on Friday morning, 100 more than on Thursday, some involving 152mm and 122mm artillery and large mortars," one anonymous "diplomatic source," told Reuters, according to a piece published earlier today. "At least four rounds had been fired from tanks."
It's not entirely clear who that individual was saying was responsible for these attacks. That person also said that this skirmishing appeared to be some of the worst fighting in the region since 2014-2015.
Experts and observers have been debating just how significant this spike in the fighting actually is. There are other reports that indicate that the last few days have seen some of the more serious exchanges of artillery fire since at least 2018. This all comes despite a long-standing, but much-abused ceasefire agreement, which includes requirements for both sides to withdraw various categories of heavy weapons, including the 152mm howitzers that Ukraine authorities say separatists recently fired at their forces.
"Ukraine military official told me this morning there were 60 spellings [sic; shellings] by Russian-aligned forces yesterday," Howard Altman, the managing editor of Military Times, wrote on Twitter today. "By comparison, Ukr MOD [Ministry of Defense] reports there were 99 between Dec. 22 and Feb. 2."
It is important to stress that the exact circumstances of much of what is happening on Donbas at present are extremely murky and difficult to verify independently. At the same time, all of this comes as Russia continues to maintain a massive military buildup in areas near its borders with Ukraine, as well as in neighboring Belarus. Michael Carpenter, the U.S. Ambassador to the multi-national Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), issued a statement today saying that American authorities currently assess that Russia has between 169,000 and 190,000 military and para-military personnel under its direct control in place now. This estimate is up from around 100,000 as of the end of January and is more than the 150,000 figure that U.S. President Joe Biden disclosed just earlier this week.
"This estimate includes military troops along the border, in Belarus, and in occupied Crimea; Russian National Guard and other internal security units deployed to these areas; and Russian-led forces in eastern Ukraine," Carpenter wrote. Unlike the U.S. National Guard, Russia's National Guard, or Rosgvardiya, which Putin established in 2016 and answers directly to him, consists primarily of elite Russian special operations units, and is officially charged with carrying out a broad swath of internal security tasks.
Russia continues to insist these deployments are simply for exercises and that the units involved will return to their home stations at the conclusion of those drills. The Kremlin has claimed that some of its forces have already withdrawn. American and other foreign officials have said that not only is there no evidence of any substantial drawdown, these withdrawals actually appear to be the strategic repositioning of forces. Furthermore, a senior U.S. official told reporters just this week that intelligence indicated as many as 7,000 additional Russian personnel had moved into positions near Ukraine. Now it would seem that number is even higher.
Those details have been coming, in part, from a persistent stream of manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, operated by the U.S. military or other NATO countries, flying over Ukraine and other nearby areas. It is clear that satellite imagery, including from commercial providers, and human intelligence, among other sources and methods, have been important in these assessments, as well.
Separately, Russia's Defense Ministry announced today that Putin would oversee large-scale strategic exercises tomorrow. It had been reported back in January that these drills would take place in early 2022, though their exact timing was previously unknown. These drills are expected to include launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and various kinds of cruise missiles, demonstrating the readiness of key components of the Russian nuclear arsenal. That deterrent is especially important at present to help keep other countries, such as the United States, from getting directly involved militarily in the crisis surrounding Ukraine. President Biden underlined today that he did not think Putin would actually use nuclear weapons in any forthcoming conflict with Ukraine.
U.S. officials disclosed today that they now also believe that Russia perpetrated a large-scale cyberattack against Ukrainian government websites this week, another potentiality that Blinken has mentioned. This all mirrors The War Zone's own analysis as to how a new conflict in Ukraine might erupt.
How the crisis will continue to evolve in the coming hours and days very much still remains to be seen. If nothing else, it is clear that the situation surrounding Ukraine is entering a new and especially worrisome phase.
Update 6:50 PM EST:
Authorities in Luhansk claim to have determined that the reported pipeline explosions were the result of deliberate sabotage, but have provided no evidence to substantiate those assertions.
Separately, commercial satellite imagery provider Maxar has released new imagery of two bases in Belarus, Luninets Air Base near the border with Ukraine and Lida Air Base in the northwestern portion of the country, showing significant increases in the total number of aircraft deployed to both sites this week. This is just the latest publicly available evidence that Russia's military buildup in the region is continuing, despite its claims to be withdrawing forces.
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