Washington: The United States has reiterated its warnings of a massive Russian invasion into Ukraine in the coming days following reports of artillery fire on a kindergarten in the Stanytsia-Luganska village in northern Ukraine which is an area known for housing Russian separatists. No one was injured in the incident.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted that the attack "by pro-Russian forces is a big provocation." Russian news agencies meanwhile quoted authorities in the separatist Lugansk region saying they blamed Kyiv after the situation on the frontline "escalated significantly."
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described Thursday's reports as "troubling."
In a dramatic, previously unscheduled speech to the United Nations in New York, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said intelligence showed Moscow could order an assault on its neighbor in the "coming days." The United States has challenged Russia to provide proof it's claims of military pull out, warning that Russia had shown misleading visuals to the world whilst actually sending more troops to the border with Ukraine.
"Demonstrate it by sending your troops, your tanks, your planes, back to their barracks and hangers, and sending your diplomats to the negotiating table," Blinken challenged. His words have been echoed by President Joe Biden who has accused Russia of being willing to stage a "false flag" operation in a pretext to invade their neighbour.
Russia's parliament on Tuesday voted to urge President Vladimir Putin to recognize the two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as "sovereign and independent states" which had drawn Blinken's condemnation, with the Secretary of State issuing a statement that such violation of a nation's sovereignty could not be tolerated.
Russia had denied plans to invade Ukraine while releasing visuals of what appeared to be military withdrawal from the border areas like Chechnya and Dagestan in the North Caucasus, and near Nizhny Novgorod. However, Moscow has warned of "military-technical measures" if its far-reaching demands for a US and NATO pullback from eastern Europe aren't satisfied.
Putin has made clear that the price for removing any threat would be Ukraine agreeing never to join NATO and for the Western alliance to pull back from a swath of eastern Europe, effectively splitting the continent into Cold War-style spheres of influence.
Meanwhile, the Russian foreign ministry has said that it is open to diplomacy but has lambasted the US for what it claims are unfounded "paranoid" assumptions as well as "absence of will on the American side to negotiate firm and legally binding guarantees on our security from the United States and its allies." The United States said Thursday that it had received Putin's response to its offers of a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but did not give any reaction to the contents.
The United States, NATO and Ukraine all said they had seen no evidence of a pullback, with Washington saying Russia had in fact moved 7,000 more troops near the border. According to US officials, there are now about 150,000 Russian troops arrayed in offensive groupings on the southern, eastern and northern borders of Ukraine.