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U.S. says Russia trying to create pretext for imminent invasion after shelling in east Ukraine

“We have reason to believe that they are engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in,” President Joe Biden said Thursday.

President Joe Biden said Thursday the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine was "very high" as the United States and its allies warned Moscow was trying to create a pretext for an attack after shelling in the country's east.

Speaking to reporters on the White House lawn, Biden said Moscow could invade its neighbor “in the next several days.”

“We have reason to believe that they are engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in,” he said. “Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine and attack Ukraine.”

Biden's comments came after Kyiv said Russian-backed separatists were responsible for “a big provocation" after the shelling of a kindergarten in eastern Ukraine. The flare-up in the long-running conflict further stoked fears of a deadly new outbreak of war in Europe.

On Friday, Biden will host a call with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Union and NATO, to discuss Ukraine, a source familiar with the matter told NBC News. A White House official later confirmed Biden will speak with "Transatlantic leaders" Friday afternoon to discuss "Russia’s buildup of military troops on the border of Ukraine and our continued efforts to pursue deterrence and diplomacy."

Reuters first reported the planned meeting.

Tensions showed no signs of easing Thursday after the West disputed Moscow’s claims of a troop pullback from near Ukraine's borders, with the Kremlin expelling a senior U.S. diplomat and delivering a sharp response to Washington over the Russian security demands at the heart of the crisis.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken changed his travel plans at the last minute to speak at a United Nations Security Council meeting on the subject in New York.

"I am here today not to start a war, but to prevent one,” Blinken said.

Echoing Biden, he warned that U.S. intelligence indicates that more than 150,000 Russian troops massed near Ukraine’s borders, as well as aircraft and ships, “are preparing to launch an attack against Ukraine in the coming days.” 

Blinken spelled out what that could look like. “First, Russia plans to manufacture a pretext for its attack," he said, before describing a campaign of bombings, cyberattacks and subsequent ground advance "on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans.”

“If Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine, then we will be relieved that Russia changed course and proved our predictions wrong,” Blinken added.

The State Department later announced that Moscow had accepted Blinken's offer to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Europe.

"The Russians have responded with proposed dates for late next week, which we are accepting, provided there is no further Russian invasion of Ukraine," State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday evening.

But the plans for further talks come as U.S. officials say all signs point to an invasion.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told reporters ahead of the Security Council meeting that “the evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving toward an imminent invasion.”

Moscow’s foreign ministry published the Russian response to the U.S. over its security demands, which has been awaited for weeks. It decried the West’s refusal to meet Russia’s core demands and asserted again that it could take unspecified “military-technical measures” if the U.S. and its allies continued to stonewall the Kremlin’s concerns.

In a surprise move, the U.S. said Thursday that its second-most senior official at the American Embassy in Moscow had been expelled. A state Department spokesperson said the move to expel Bart Gorman, the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) to Russia, was “unprovoked” and “an escalatory step.”

Image: Antony Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered remarks at a U.N. meeting on the crisis after a rushed schedule change saw him arrive late then head to Munich for a security conference.Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The fresh burst of friction followed some optimism earlier in the week, when Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country was pulling back some of the troops that have converged on Ukraine on three sides and was open to more talks.

But Western officials accused Moscow of lying about any withdrawal and said it had in fact added to the military buildup that has fueled the monthslong crisis.

The conflict in Ukraine's east has been closely watched over fears it could become a flashpoint and source of potential escalation in the broader standoff. Sporadic firing in the area is not unusual, but comes amid western warnings that Russia could stage a “false flag” operation as justification for a fresh military incursion. 

Officials accused Russia of doing just that Thursday.

"Reports of alleged abnormal military activity by Ukraine in Donbas are a blatant attempt by the Russian government to fabricate pretexts for invasion," British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss tweeted.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was “seriously concerned” about reports of an escalation and countered that the West was making “unfounded accusations” about Moscow’s claims of a troop withdrawal, according to Reuters.

“They can’t just take off and fly away," he told a news briefing, according to the agency. "It takes time."

The present crisis comes eight years after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and backed breakaway forces in the country's east.

Kyiv said a kindergarten in the territory under its control in eastern Ukraine was shelled with heavy artillery weapons by Moscow-backed separatists early Thursday, while the separatists accused Ukraine’s army of firing on the territory they control.

Image: A view shows a damaged kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska
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

The Ukrainian army said three people at the kindergarten were injured and power in the area was knocked out. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Twitter that the incident was "a big provocation.”

Meanwhile, the 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.

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.

Image: Ukraine
A woman stands among debris after the reported shelling of a kindergarden in the settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine, on Feb. 17, 2022.Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, which has kept track of the fighting, said it had "serious concern" about the reported kindergarten shelling and called for protection of civilians.

The Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops in Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk since 2014, in violence that has killed some 14,000 people and remains unresolved. There have been a series of shaky ceasefires, but occasional firing and casualties have continued. 

Russia has consistently denied it has any plans to launch a fresh attack on its neighbor.