Artillery fire erupted in eastern Ukraine today as Kiev forces and Moscow-backed rebels blamed each other for the shooting, raising fears it could be a trigger for a Russian invasion.
Early Thursday morning images of the partially destroyed kindergarten circulated on social media. The Ukrainian military said the building was on their side of the front lines in the war-torn Donbass and was hit by separatists, while pro-Russian sources claimed it was on their side. side of the border and was fired upon by the people of Kiev.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the UN’s intergovernmental observer, confirmed that there had been artillery fire in the region, but could not immediately say who was shooting at whom. Witnesses also reported sounds of artillery fire near the Donetsk airport and the village of Yelenovka, both in rebel-held territory.
This has raised fears that a Russian “false flag” operation is currently underway to justify bringing troops into Ukraine on the basis of “protecting” ethnic Russians living in the Donbas, a tactic last used during the 2008 invasion of Georgia. .
Meanwhile, satellite images have shown that a new pontoon bridge has been built hundreds of miles from Belarusian territory, where Russian troops are training, and Ukrainian territory. The bridge is located in the Pripyat region, not far from Chernobyl, and could provide a route for Russian troops to the capital Kiev.
Other images show huge troop movements across Belarus, Russia and occupied Crimea. Some showed camps once full of Russian tanks being emptied, others showed new formations of attack helicopters and vehicles, while others showed tanks and artillery pieces lined up and ready to move.
This comes amid warnings from NATO and Washington that Putin is not withdrawing troops from Ukraine’s borders, as he has claimed, but is instead drawing forces closer and continuing to build up troop levels, adding 7,000 more yesterday and today.
About 150,000 troops backed by tanks, artillery, attack helicopters and fighter jets are now believed to be stationed near Ukraine – more than half of all Russian ground forces – who are on high readiness and could invade at short notice, according to Western allies.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Thursday about 20 Russian warships began exercises in the Caspian Sea, part of a wider military exercise involving most of its army and navy.
Artillery opened fire in eastern Ukraine as photos emerged of a partially destroyed kindergarten building, with both Kiev forces and Russia-backed rebels blaming each other for the destruction.
Earlier this week, Putin said there was a “genocide” against Russians in the Donbas, an unsubstantiated claim that was immediately followed by reports in state media of the discovery of “mass graves” dating back to 2014, the year Moscow last invaded.
The White House has been warning for weeks that such claims could be used to justify a Russian attack, with State Department spokesman Ned Price saying: “Over the past few weeks, we have also seen Russian officials plant numerous stories in the press, any one of them could be used as a pretext for an invasion.”
These allegations, which have circulated on social media, include genocide, mass graves, and the possibility of the Ukrainian government using chemical weapons against the people of Donbass.
“None of these claims have any basis,” Price said. “These are false narratives that Russia is developing to be used as a pretext for military action against Ukraine.”
Satellite images released overnight show that Russia has moved some of its military equipment that was stationed near Ukraine, but other equipment has arrived, and Moscow still has a lot of forces and equipment in the region.
In Crimea, where Russia showed videos of it withdrawing tanks and military equipment, Maksar pointed to armored vehicles located at the Yevpatoriya railway station that could be preparing for shipment.
However, troops and equipment remained stationed at other sites on the peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, including at the Opuk training ground, as well as at facilities on Lake Donuzlav and Novoozernoye, the report said.
In Belarus, where Russia is conducting exercises, Maksar pointed to a new military pontoon bridge over the Pripyat River less than six kilometers from the border with Ukraine and a large new field hospital on one training ground.
According to Maksar, a new unit of nearly 20 attack helicopters was transferred to the airfield in Belarus, but significant units of troops and ground forces recently stationed there have gone missing.
Troops and armored vehicles continued to be deployed to other facilities and received training. Most of the equipment and troop quarters that were near Rechitsa in southeastern Belarus left and went missing, the report said, adding that the military convoy was heading west.
Speaking on Thursday morning, British Armed Forces Secretary James Hippie said intelligence he had seen over the past 48 hours indicated that Russia was continuing to build up its forces near Ukraine.
“You saw overnight that the US administration has informed that another 7,000 people are moving towards the border,” he told the BBC Radio 4 program Today.
“These are not necessarily numbers that we have been able to verify ourselves, but certainly the trend is that more people are moving towards Ukraine rather than away from it, and we are concerned that this is the case.”
Asked by Times Radio if Moscow was “lying” about the withdrawal of troops from the border area, he added: “I would say that we have seen intelligence – intelligence from open sources – over the past few days that clearly shows the build-up of the Russian presence. troops on the border with Ukraine continues.
“The fact that more people are moving into the area than people are leaving, and that the key combat support we have seen moved towards the Ukrainian border in the past few days now includes bridges built and a number of other things, make final preparations. created for their invasion.
Asked if he meant that Moscow was “stepping up preparations” for an invasion rather than retreating, Mr. Hippie replied: “Yes, that’s exactly what I think is happening.”
A senior US administration official said that some forces had only recently arrived and that false claims by the Russians, which the Kremlin could use as an excuse to invade, had increased markedly.
The official said the allegations included reports of unmarked graves of civilians allegedly killed by Ukrainian forces, allegations that the US and Ukraine are developing biological or chemical weapons, and allegations that the West is sending partisans to kill Ukrainians.
The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the covert operations and spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The official did not provide any evidence to support these allegations.
“We haven’t seen a rollback,” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told ABC News. Russian President Vladimir Putin “may pull the trigger.” He can pull it out today. He can pull it out tomorrow. He can pull it out next week. There are forces if he wants to resume aggression against Ukraine.”
Asked why the Russians are saying they are leaving when government intelligence, commercial satellite photos and social media videos show no evidence of this, State Department spokesman Ned Price said: “This is a Russian play to paint a picture in public. while they do the opposite.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace also said that the number of military personnel has increased to 7,000 in recent days.
“We have seen the opposite of some statements,” he said in Brussels. “We are going to judge Russia by their actions, and at the moment the buildup of troops is ongoing.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also said that the alliance has not seen “any withdrawal of Russian troops.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also rejected Russia’s claims.
‘What is it? Rotations, leaving, returning back,” he said during a visit to the southeastern city of Mariupol. “It’s too early to rejoice.
The Ukrainian leader, who has repeatedly sought to demonstrate calm and strength during times of crisis, declared Wednesday a day of “national unity” — a day that was seen as an opportunity to launch an invasion.
Across the country, Ukrainians of all ages waved flags in the streets and from apartment windows.
Hundreds of people unfurled a 200-meter (650-foot) flag at the Kiev Olympic Stadium, while another was hoisted in the center of a shopping mall in the capital.
In the government-controlled part of Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014, residents have unfurled another huge flag across the street.
“This event, such a number of people united around the Ukrainian flag, will show that we are for a united Ukraine,” said Elena Tkacheva, a resident.
A 2015 deal brokered by France and Germany helped end heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine, but implementation has stalled. The agreement, known as the Minsk Agreement, will grant the breakaway territories broad self-government and is therefore resented by many in Ukraine.
A Ukrainian government spokesman said in a TV interview that Zelenskiy would consider holding a referendum on the Minsk agreements “unless there are other options or tools.” But Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk said she did not know that such an idea was being seriously discussed.
The UN Security Council is due to hold its annual meeting on the Minsk agreements on Thursday. Russia, which is chairing the council in rotation this month, will chair the meeting. At last year’s Council meeting, Russia clashed with the United States and its Western allies over a conflict in eastern Ukraine, and a similar confrontation is expected this year.
Putin has made it clear that he wants a peaceful way out of the crisis. His country had repeatedly complained that the US and NATO had not responded satisfactorily in writing to its security concerns. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that Russia is in the final stages of preparing an official response to the West.
“After that, a schedule of further steps will be developed,” she said on state television.
This was further evidence that the Kremlin is determined to keep up the pressure for a while.