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U.S. intelligence shows Russia’s military pullback was a ruse, officials say

President Biden warned Thursday that the probability of a Ukraine invasion is “very high.” (Jim Lo Scalzo/Bloomberg)

U.S. officials have obtained intelligence that Russia’s announced military pullback from Ukraine’s border was a deliberate ruse to mislead the United States and other world powers, four officials said Thursday, as President Biden offered a bleak warning that the Kremlin will launch an attack “in the next several days.”

The souring optimism that it would be possible to avoid conflict came just days after a flicker of hope, when Russian leaders signaled they would begin to draw down the more than 150,000 troops they have massed at Ukraine’s border. That announcement was accompanied by Kremlin-produced videos of what they claimed were tanks and other heavy equipment leaving border areas by rail car. U.S. officials now believe it was an effort to mask Russia’s true intentions in the region.

All four officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive intelligence.

Russian forces have continued to increase near Ukraine’s frontier, officials said, and shelling escalated in eastern Ukraine, adding to increasingly gloomy attitudes in Washington and European capitals that had hoped to forestall war. Russia is continuing military exercises in Belarus, in easy reach of Ukraine’s border, that intelligence officials fear could give the cover for an invasion. The exercises are due to end Sunday.

Biden told reporters at the White House that the threat of invasion remains “very high” and that Russia may be creating an excuse to do so.

“We have reason to believe that they are engaged in a false-flag operation to have an excuse to go in,” Biden said. “Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine.” He added that “my sense is it will happen in the next several days.”

Biden’s pessimistic view coincided with fresh intelligence assessments about Russia’s intentions.

Washington obtained “credible information that Russia’s claims may be part of a disinformation campaign designed to mislead” the United States, said a U.S. official. Two other U.S. officials and one European official independently confirmed they were familiar with the intelligence.

When Russia made the pullback claims Tuesday, NATO leaders were initially skeptical. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he had seen no evidence of a drawdown.

Two of the U.S. officials said there was additional intelligence indicating a false flag by Russia would involve the use of a chemical agent that would immobilize civilians, then use cadavers to make it appear as though the Ukrainians had gassed and killed civilians. One of the officials said the blame might also be pinned on Americans.

U.S. officials have yet to produce much of the evidence that underlies their assertions about troop movements or false-flag operations. It would be highly unusual for intelligence officials to reveal such sources and methods. But the Biden administration has disclosed satellite imagery that shows Russian troop movements. And commercial satellite companies and independent investigators have corroborated that information from their own sources, many of which are publicly available.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Feb. 17 that a potential Russian false-flag action could include a “fake, even a real, attack using chemical weapons.” (Video: The Washington Post)

Speaking at the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken listed dire possibilities Russia could use as pretexts for an intervention, including staging a chemical weapons attack.

A potential Russian false-flag action could include a “fabricated so-called terrorist bombing inside Russia,” a fake mass grave, a staged drone attack on civilians, or a “fake, even a real, attack using chemical weapons,” Blinken said.

He called on Russia to renounce any future invasion of Ukraine and send its forces back to their barracks.

“This is a moment of peril for the lives and safety of millions of people, as well as for the foundation of the United Nations charter and the rules-based international order that preserves stability worldwide.” He said he has asked his Russian counterpart to meet with him in Europe next week.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin, who chaired the meeting, rejected the accusations, saying Western nations had assumed an “ostrichlike position” on Ukraine and failed to pressure Kyiv to implement 2015 peace accords that are widely seen as favorable to Russia.

He said the United States, as part of its effort to preempt what American officials said could be a punishing assault on Ukraine, had set false expectations about when Russia might launch an attack. “The announced date of the so-called invasion is behind us,” he said sarcastically.

After the visit to New York, Blinken departed for Munich, where he planned to join Vice President Harris at a high-level security conclave that will focus on Russia. The Security Council meeting was called by Russia, which currently holds its rotating presidency, to discuss implementation of the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements on ending the war in eastern Ukraine.

Russia has offered little in the way of conciliation after calmer tones earlier this week. The Russian Foreign Ministry ripped into U.S. proposals to address the Kremlin’s security concerns, and the State Department confirmed Thursday that Russia had expelled the second-ranking U.S. diplomat in Moscow, Deputy Chief of Mission Bart Gorman, last week. The department decried the unusual move in a statement as “an escalatory step.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry said that the United States had failed to agree to security guarantees for Russia, and that “Russia will be forced to respond, including through the implementation of military-technical measures.” It did not specify what those measures would be, but it denied plans for a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The State Department said late Thursday that Blinken agreed to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov next week under the condition that Moscow refrains from attacking Ukraine.

“We are accepting, provided there is no further Russian invasion of Ukraine,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price. “If they do invade in the coming days, it will make clear they were never serious about diplomacy.”

Blinken, who is in Munich for talks with European officials, will continue to coordinate with allies and partners for “further engagements with Russia through the NATO-Russia Council and OSCE,” Price said.

Video footage released by the Ukrainian Joint Forces Operation on Feb. 17 shows debris after a reported shelling of a kindergarten in Ukraine. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Ukrainian Joint Forces Operation/AFP via Getty Images/Reuters)

The fears of conflict sent markets plunging on Thursday, with the S&P 500 and Nasdaq indexes dropping more than 2 percent and the Dow Jones coming close. Global markets were also broadly lower.

The diplomatic sniping came as the long-running conflict in eastern Ukraine heated up. An observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said Thursday that it had counted 591 violations of the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, up from 153 the prior day. Western officials have warned that Russia could use developments in the region as an excuse to invade.

Separatists rained down artillery, mortar rounds and other munitions at the front, the Ukrainian military said in a statement posted to social media. In the government-held village of Stanytsia Luhanska near Luhansk, an artillery strike blew a hole through a kindergarten building. A hole was blown through a wall, and soccer balls were scattered among debris, according to photos posted to social media. Three adults suffered concussions, officials said. No children were reported injured. The Ukrainian military said the village — which has not often been targeted — was struck by 32 artillery rounds.

A separatist leader told Russian state media that Ukrainian government forces had opened fire on several separatist positions, seeking to escalate conflict. He did not provide evidence for his claim, and Ukraine denied shelling Kremlin-backed forces in its east, according to Reuters. The separatists described the purported Ukrainian shelling as a “large-scale provocation” and said they returned fire.

In the meantime, Russian forces continue to build and move toward Ukraine’s frontier, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters in Brussels, despite the Kremlin’s promises that it was drawing down its troops.

“We don’t see that. Quite the contrary. We see them add to the more than 150,000 that they already have arrayed along their border even in the last couple of days,” Austin said. We’ve seen some of those troops inch closer to that border. We’ve seen them fly in more combat and support aircraft. We’ve seen them sharpen their readiness in the Black Sea. We’ve even seen them stocking up their blood supplies.”

He added: “You know, I was a soldier myself not that long ago, and I know firsthand that you don’t do these things for no reason, and you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home.”

The U.S. Army will deploy a Stryker company to Bulgaria in the coming days, Austin said, joining thousands of U.S. troops who have mobilized along NATO’s eastern flank. They will depart from their home base in Germany, which has already sent Stryker vehicles and soldiers to Romania. Other service members and their equipment arrived in Poland, part of a growing U.S. presence there.

Intelligence officials painted a gloomy picture of what they were seeing.

“Most military indicators are in the red,” said one Western intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential assessments. “It all comes down to a political decision about whether to launch an attack. The Russians are actively fabricating the casus belli. This activity seems like more than just a military exercise.”

In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko injected some uncertainty into previous pledges that the massive Russian force conducting military maneuvers there would withdraw when the drills conclude this weekend. He said he would consult Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on how long the troops should stay.

“If we decide so, we will withdraw them in a day,” Lukashenko told reporters. “If we decide a month, they will stand here for a month. The armed forces will be here for as long as necessary.” He also did not rule out maintaining some Russian military equipment permanently in his country, contradicting previous Belarusian statements that all of it would be withdrawn.

Horton reported from Kyiv. Isabelle Khurshudyan, Serhiy Morgunov and Steve Hendrix in Kyiv, Robyn Dixon and Mary Ilyushina in Moscow, Emily Rauhala in Brussels, Rachel Pannett in Sydney, John Hudson in New York, and Karen DeYoung, Missy Ryan and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.