Joe Biden said he believed Vladimir Putin made the decision to invade Ukraine and target its capital, Kyiv, in what he said would be a “catastrophic and unnecessary war of choice”. But the US president insisted that until the attack begins, “diplomacy is always a possibility”.
Biden spoke to the press Friday night after consulting with European and Canadian allies, on a day of rapid events in and around Ukraine that have brought her closer to the brink of conflict.
Satellite imagery showed new Russian military movements, with helicopters and tanks closing in on the border at several sites around the Ukrainian border.
Leaders of the breakaway Russian-backed regions of Luhansk and Donetsk claimed to be under Ukrainian attack and ordered the mass evacuation of civilians. A gas pipeline in Lugansk caught fire after explosions on Friday evening. A second explosion hit the town about 40 minutes later. Earlier in the day, a car bomb exploded in a vacant lot in Donetsk.
Biden said the claims of a Ukrainian attack were a fabricated attempt to provide a pretext for an invasion.
“There is simply no evidence for these claims and it defies basic logic to believe that the Ukrainians would choose this moment, with over 150,000 troops deployed on its borders, to escalate a years-long conflict,” he said. he said, adding that the Ukrainians had held their fire.
“Throughout these tense moments, Ukrainian forces have exercised great judgment, and I might add restraint,” Biden said. “They refuse to have the Russians drag them into the war.”
Biden said he had come to the conclusion that the Russian leader was determined to go to war.
“From this point on, I’m confident he made the decision,” he said, explaining his confidence by saying, “We have a significant intelligence capability.”
But Biden added that until an attack begins, “diplomacy is always a possibility.”
He confirmed that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to speak with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, next Thursday, “but if Russia takes military action before then, it will be clear that it has slammed the door to diplomacy”.
“They will have chosen a war and they will pay a high price for it,” Biden said. “Make no mistake, if Russia goes ahead with its plans, it will be responsible for a catastrophic and unnecessary war of choice.”
After evacuation announcements in Donetsk and Luhansk, sirens went off in towns across the region, supposedly to warn of an impending Ukrainian military assault. Journalists and independent observers said there were no signs of a Ukrainian attack. Kiev has denied taking any hostile action and Ukrainian intelligence had previously warned that infrastructure in Russian-backed regions had been mined to provide a pretext for a Russian offensive.
Metadata on video evacuation orders from separatist leaders in Luhansk and Donetsk showed they had been recorded two days earlier.
US officials have increased their estimates of the massed force on the Ukrainian border to 190,000 troops, divided into more than 120 battalion tactical groups, the largest troop mobilization since World War II. US officials said about half of them had moved to attack positions.
US imaging firm Maxar said on Friday new satellite images showed a major new deployment of helicopters in Belarus and a gathering of tanks and personnel carriers at Millerovo airfield, 25 km from the border. Ukrainian. Other helicopters had arrived in Belgorod, just north of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, and in Crimea.
The White House and the British government said on Friday they believed Russia was behind cyberattacks this week that temporarily shut down the websites of two of Ukraine’s biggest banks and its defense ministry.
And in Moscow, it was announced that Putin would oversee a nuclear-capable ballistic and cruise missile exercise this weekend.
“I don’t think he’s remotely considering using nuclear weapons,” Biden said. “But I think he is focused on trying to convince the world that he has the ability to change the dynamics in Europe in a way that he cannot.”
At a security conference in Munich, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the world had reached “one of the most dangerous times when provocation and disinformation could turn into an escalation”.
“What is at stake for the Ukrainian people is their right to determine their own future, and for all of us what is at stake is nothing less than peace in Europe and whether we are going to defend our rules-based order, even if there is a problem.”
She also warned that the scale of violence had increased dramatically in the past 48 hours. The conflict was not a Ukrainian crisis, she said, but “a Russian crisis…Those who want to live together in safety do not threaten each other”.
Baerbock said she fears Russia is operating through a false flag operation or coup rather than an invasion.
Speaking alongside Blinken, Baerbock vowed that Germany was “ready to pay a high price in economic terms” through sanctions, adding that everything was on the table, including the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
EU foreign ministers will review their planned sanctions package on Monday, but Western officials have said there may be a need to strike Russia ‘quickly and on a large scale’ in the event of an unconventional attack on the Ukraine. Sanctions could be implemented “when we judge that Russia has crossed a line on this”, the officials said.
Foreign ministers in Munich are expected to consider the threat of a major humanitarian crisis if refugees flee through Poland.
The United States nonetheless remains hopeful that Lavrov will hold talks on Russia’s and NATO’s rival plans for a future security map of Europe at the end of next week, possibly in Geneva.
Blinken warned that everything he was seeing suggested that Russia had decided not to go down the path of diplomacy, and he feared the developments of the past 48 hours were likely part of a Russian plan to create false provocations.
He said he remained fully committed to diplomacy, but the West needed to be informed by history, including the Russian invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008. “We need to be informed by the facts, and the facts are that despite what Russia has said in recent days about the withdrawal of troops from the border, [that] did not happen. On the contrary, we see additional forces moving to the border, including peak forces that will be part of any aggression,” he said.