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Allies warn over Kremlin attempts to justify Ukraine invasion

The US has issued some of its starkest, most detailed warnings yet about how a Russian invasion of Ukraine might unfold, with Western allies on high alert for any attempts by the Kremlin to create a false pretext for a new war in Europe.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken warned UN officials of a possible staged drone strike or “so-called terrorist bombing” inside Russia, or even an attack using chemical weapons, which would be used as a justification for invading Ukraine.

American president Joe Biden also warned that Washington saw no signs of a promised Russian withdrawal – but instead saw more troops moving toward the border with Ukraine, indicating Moscow could invade within days.

Mr Biden told reporters at the White House: “Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine.”

He said the US has “reason to believe” that Russia is “engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in”.

Western fears are focused on an estimated 150,000 Russian troops – including about 60% of Russia’s overall ground forces – posted around Ukraine’s borders.

The Kremlin insists it has no plans to invade, but it has long considered Ukraine part of its sphere of influence and sees Nato’s eastward expansion as an existential threat.

A key demand in this crisis is that Nato should promise never to allow Ukraine to join.

Mr Biden plans to speak with transatlantic leaders on Friday about the Russian military build-up and continued efforts at deterrence and diplomacy.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken revealed some conclusions of US intelligence, part of a strategy designed to expose and pre-empt any invasion planning.

The US has declined to reveal much of the evidence underlying its claims.

Mr Blinken told diplomats at the UN Security Council that a sudden, seemingly violent event staged by Russia to justify an invasion would kick off the assault.

He mentioned a “so-called terrorist bombing” inside Russia, a staged drone strike, or “a fake, even a real attack … using chemical weapons”.

The invasion would open with cyber attacks, along with missile strikes and bombs across Ukraine, he said.

Mr Blinken described the entry of Russian troops, advancing on Kyiv, a city of nearly three million, and other key targets.

By Thursday evening, US and European officials were on high alert for any Russian attempts to create a pretext for invasion, according to officials.

Ukrainian government officials shared intelligence with allies that suggested the Russians might try to shell the Luhansk area in the disputed Donbas region on Friday morning as part of an effort to create a false reason to take military action.

Violence spiked in a long-running stand-off in that area on Thursday, fuelling worries it could provide the spark for wider conflict.

The region has been the site of fighting since 2014 that has killed 14,000 people.

Separatist authorities in the Luhansk region reported an increase in Ukrainian government shelling along the tense line of contact.

Separatist official Rodion Miroshnik said rebel forces returned fire.

Ukraine disputed the claim, saying separatists had shelled its forces but they did not fire back. The Ukrainian military command said shells hit a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska, wounding two teachers, and cut power to half the town.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted that the kindergarten shelling “by pro-Russian forces is a big provocation”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “We have repeatedly warned that the excessive concentration of Ukrainian armed forces in the immediate vicinity of the line of demarcation, coupled with possible provocations, could pose a terrible danger.”

Western powers scrambled to avert, or prepare for, eventual invasion.

Nato’s defence ministers discussed ways to bolster forces in Eastern Europe, while EU leaders debated how to punish Russia if it invades.

Mr Blinken and US vice president Kamala Harris are among political, military and diplomatic leaders heading to an annual security conference in Munich that will see urgent consultations on the crisis.

Mr Blinken also plans to meet his Russian counterpart next week.

Russia said the military pullout, announced earlier this week, will take time.

Russia also made a new diplomatic overture on Thursday, handing the US a response to offers to engage in talks on limiting missile deployments in Europe, restrictions on military drills and other confidence-building measures.

The response, released by the foreign ministry, deplored the West’s refusal to meet the main Russian security demands and reaffirmed that Moscow could take unspecified “military-technical measures” if the US and its allies continue to stonewall its concerns.

At the same time, it said Russia was ready to discuss limits on missile deployments, restrictions on patrol flights by strategic bombers and other steps.

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