Shelling in eastern Ukraine adds to tensions as U.S. says Russian troop pullback claim 'false'

Ukraine accused Russian-backed separatists of “a big provocation” Thursday, as a flare-up in the long-running conflict in the country’s east further stoked tensions after the United States and its allies disputed Moscow’s claims of a pullback from around its neighbor’s borders .

“The shelling of a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska by pro-Russian forces is a big provocation,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Twitter.

Kyiv’s forces said artillery shells fired by the Moscow-backed rebels injured three people at the kindergarten and knocked out power in the area, while the separatists accused Ukraine’s army of firing on the territory they control.

As tensions rose again on the frontlines of a conflict that has been ongoing since 2014, the West warned anew that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent. Washington and NATO accused Moscow of misleading the world with “false” claims it was pulling back some troops, saying they had in fact seen an increase in the military buildup that has fueled the monthslong crisis.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has been closely watched over fears it could become a flashpoint and source of potential escalation in the broader standoff, which has seen Russia deploy more than 150,000 troops to converge around Ukraine on three sides while issuing demands to the US and NATO .

Sporadic firing in the area is not unusual, but comes amid western warnings that Russia could use an escalation in the fighting, or stage a “false flag” operation, as justification for a fresh military incursion.

On Thursday, the Ukrainian army said a kindergarten in territory under Kyiv’s control was shelled with heavy artillery weapons by the separatist forces. Three employees at the kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska were injured, the army’s statement said, and half of the town was left without electricity as the result of shelling elsewhere.

Photos shared by the Ukrainian army on social media appeared to show bricks and rubble inside a play room, with children’s toys on the ground. Joint Forces Operation via Reuters

Meanwhile, Moscow-backed separatists in the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” accused Ukrainian soldiers of firing on their territory four times in the past 24 hours, Reuters reported. In a statement, the separatists said Ukrainian forces had used mortars, grenade launchers and a machine gun in four separate incidents, according to Reuters.

While the details of the incidents could not be independently confirmed by NBC News, the location of the shelled building is in Stanytsia Luhanska, which is in Ukrainian-controlled territory. Russian-backed separatists, meanwhile, provided no evidence that territory they controlled had been attacked.

Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops in Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk since 2014, when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and backed the breakaway forces. The violence has killed some 14,000 people and remains unresolved. There have been a series of shaky ceasefires in place, but occasional firing and casualties continue.

The incidents come amid a dispute over Russian claims of a drawdown around Ukraine that have lowered hopes of a potential de-escalation.

An exterior view shows a kindergarten, which according to Ukraine’s military officials was damaged by shelling, in Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine, on Feb. 17, 2022. Joint Forces Operation via Reuters

Moscow announced earlier in the week that it was pulling back some of its troops from near Ukraine’s borders, but Washington and its allies said there was no proof of the Russian claims.

“We now know it was false,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters Wednesday night, adding that as many as 7,000 troops have joined the Russian contingent in recent days.

The official said troops were arriving as recently as Wednesday and Moscow could launch a false pretext to invade Ukraine at any moment.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reiterated to reporters at a news conference in Brussels Thursday that the US has not seen evidence of Russian troops withdrawing from the region. “We don’t see that — quite the contrary,” Austin said. “We see them add to the more than 150,000 troops that they already have arrayed along that border, even in the last couple of days.”

Austin said that Russia has sharpened its readiness in the Black Sea and has been stocking up on blood supplies. “I know firsthand that you don’t do these sorts of things for no reason, and you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home,” he said.

Austin said that the US and its allies “stay vigilant” and are monitoring for any so-called false flag operations by Russia. Asked who was responsible for the shelling of the kindergarten in eastern Ukraine, Austin said the US is still gathering details but said officials have warned for some time that “Russians might do something like this in order to justify a military conflict so we’ll be watching this very closely.”

But as Austin prepared to meet with the head of NATO, the Kremlin said it was the West making “unfounded accusations” about Moscow’s claims of a troop withdrawal.

“It’s clear the grouping for the (military) exercises was built up over many weeks, and it is of course impossible to withdraw it in a single day. They can’t just take off and fly away… it takes time,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told a news briefing, according to Reuters.

Russia has consistently denied it has any plans to attack its neighbor.

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