President Joe Biden said Friday that the United States believes that Russia has decided to launch an invasion of Ukraine “in the coming days.”
“We have reason to believe the Russian forces are planning and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week, in the coming days,” Biden said in remarks at the White House. “We believe that they will target Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million innocent people.”
“As of this moment I am convinced that he has made the decision,” he added, referring to President Putin. Previously, the president and his top officials have said they did not know whether this was the case.
But, he said, Russia could “still choose diplomacy” and that it was “not too late to de-escalate and return to the negotiating table”.
Tensions rise as pro-Russia separatists call on civilians to leave Ukraine
Tensions in Ukraine reached their highest in years on Friday after pro-Russian separatist leaders in the breakaway republics of Ukraine’s Donbas region called on civilians to evacuate.
Leaders of the two separatist areas said Ukraine had intensified shelling and was planning an attack.
Ukraine has repeatedly said it is not planning any attack, and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba dismissed what he called “Russian disinformation reports”.
Western nations accuse Russia of trying to stage a fake crisis in breakaway eastern regions of Ukraine to give it a reason to launch an offensive.
The Kremlin said President Putin had ordered that refugee camps be set up near the border and “emergency” aid paid to people arriving from the separatist areas. Russian state media reported that several buses carrying local residents had made their way to Russia.
The US state department called the announcement of evacuations a “cynical” move by Moscow “to distract the world from the fact that Russia is building up its forces in preparation for an attack”. The White House said the evacuations were an example of Moscow using misinformation as a pretext for war.
The US estimates there is 169,000-190,000 Russian personnel massed in and near Ukraine, a figure that includes Russian-backed fighters in the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.
This is a sharp increase from just several weeks ago. As recently as January 30, there were 100,000 Russian troops arrayed along the border.
Russia stages nuclear drill
In another sign of rising tensions, Russia announced that it will stage nuclear forces drills this weekend.
The Associated Press reports that the large-scale nuclear drills are intended to show the capabilities of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, which is one of the largest in the world, to other countries.
The Kremlin announced Friday that Putin is “likely to be in the situation center” during military drills on Saturday, where ballistic and cruise missiles will be launched.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov noted that such training exercises are “quite regular,” and would involve appropriate international notifications.