US President Joe Biden said he is “convinced” Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to launch a further invasion in Ukraine, stating he has “reason to believe” it will occur in the “coming days” and include an assault on capital city Kyiv.
After weeks of saying the US was not sure if Mr Putin had made a final decision on whether to launch a widespread invasion, the Mr Biden said that assessment had now changed.
“As of this moment I’m convinced he’s made the decision,” he said. “We have reason to believe that.”
He cited the US’ “significant intelligence capability” for the assessment.
Mr Biden reiterated his threat of massive economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia if it does invade, and pressed Mr Putin to rethink his course of action.
This week’s actions have fueled those concerns: US and European officials, focused on an estimated 150,000 Russian troops posted around Ukraine’s borders, warn the long-simmering separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine could provide the spark for a broader attack.
Meanwhile, a further indication that the Russians continue preparations for a potential invasion, a US defense official said an estimated 40% to 50% of the ground forces deployed in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border have moved into attack positions closer the border.
That shift has been underway for around a week, other officials have said, but does not necessarily mean Mr Putin has decided to begin an invasion.
The official also said the number of Russian ground units known as battalion tactical groups deployed in the border area had grown to between 120 and 125, an increase from 83 two weeks ago. Each battalion tactical group consists of 750 to 1,000 soldiers.
Vice President Kamala Harris said the US still hopes Russia will de-escalate but is ready to hit it with tough sanctions in case of an attack.
US leaders this week issued their most dire warnings yet that Moscow could order an invasion of Ukraine any day.
“We remain, of course, open to and desirous of diplomacy… but we are also committed, if Russia takes aggressive action, to ensure there will be severe consequence,” Ms Harris said at the annual Munich Security Conference.
Although Russia snubbed this year’s conference, lines of communication remain open: The US and Russian defense chiefs spoke on Friday, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called for de-escalation, the return of Russian forces surrounding Ukraine to their home bases, and a diplomatic resolution , according to the Pentagon.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have since agreed to meet next week.
Immediate worries focused on eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russia rebels since 2014 in a conflict that has killed around 14,000 people.
A bombing struck a car outside the main government building in the major eastern city of Donetsk, according to an Associated Press journalist there.
Head of the separatists’ forces, Denis Sinenkov, said the car was his, the Interfax news agency reported.
There were no reports of casualties and no independent confirmation of the circumstances of the blast. Uniformed men inspected the burned-out car.
Shelling and shooting are common along the line that separates Ukrainian forces and the rebels, but targeted violence is unusual in rebel-held cities like Donetsk.
However, the explosion and the announced evacuations were in line with US warnings of so-called false-flag attacks that Russia would use to justify an invasion.
Separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions that form Ukraine’s industrial heartland known as the Donbas said they are evacuating civilians to Russia.
The announcement appeared to be part of Moscow’s efforts to counter Western warnings of a Russian invasion and to paint Ukraine as the aggressor instead.
Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk rebel government, said women, children and the elderly would go first, and that Russia has prepared facilities for them.
Mr Pushilin alleged in a video statement that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was going to order an imminent offensive in the area.
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