Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine, President Biden said for the first time on Friday, as Ukrainian separatist authorities ordered a mass evacuation and the West’s standoff with Russia entered a new, more dangerous stage.
“As of this moment I’m convinced he’s made the decision,” Biden said at the White House, speaking after the latest crisis consultation with NATO and European leaders. He cited the United States’ “significant intelligence capability.”
“We’re calling out Russia’s plans loudly, repeatedly, not because we want a conflict, but because we’re doing everything in our power to remove any reason that Russia may give to justify invading Ukraine, and prevent them from moving,” Biden said.
The remarks, in Biden’s second televised address on Ukraine in less than a week, came as events on the ground rapidly accelerated. In Donetsk, the Russian-backed breakaway state in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, separatist leaders urged women, children and the elderly to depart immediately, a move the Biden administration said could be part of a false-flag operation engineered to justify an assault.
As sirens blared in Donetsk and buses rolled out for Russia’s southwestern Rostov region, a car exploded outside the seat of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, an act local officials characterized as sabotage. Two explosions in Lugansk, another separatist-controlled city in eastern Ukraine, were reported by pro-Russian media channels Friday night.
Donetsk leader Denis Pushilin linked the evacuation to what he said were preparations by Ukraine’s Western-backed government for a military offensive, a prospect that leaders in Kyiv roundly denied.
In Russia, Putin ordered authorities to make preparations for what separatist officials said could be a wave of some 700,000 refugees. Russian TV reported that the first buses from the Donbas region arrived in Rostov on Friday and were escorted by police to their accommodations, according to Interfax.
It was not immediately clear how many people departed Donetsk for Russia on Friday.
The reported acts of violence added new urgency to appeals from Western leaders for a peaceful resolution to the spiraling crisis. Western officials say Russia has massed close to 200,000 military and national guard troops in and around Ukraine in recent months, a figure that if confirmed would represent the region’s largest mobilization since World War II.
While the Kremlin has repeatedly denied plans to invade the former Soviet state, it has accused the West of threatening Russian security by beefing up NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe and inviting Ukraine to join the Transatlantic alliance.
Vice President Harris, conferring with Western leaders Friday at the annual Munich Security Conference, said the United States remained hopeful an off-ramp could be found.
“But we are also committed, if Russia takes aggressive action, to ensuring there will be severe consequence in terms of the economic sanctions we have discussed,” she said, referencing Western nations’ plans to unleash far-reaching economic retaliation on Russia should Putin invade.
“We know the Alliance is strong in that regard,” she said.
The Biden administration, hoping to deprive Russia of a pretext for invasion, has taken the unusual step of airing sensitive intelligence information about what officials say are Russian plans for a false provocation in eastern Ukraine.
Presenting new accusations at the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said such moves could include a staged terrorist or drone attack, fake mass graves or a simulated — even possibly a real — chemical weapons incident, which would then be blamed on Ukrainian authorities as a ruse to begin fighting.
A State Department spokesperson said Friday’s evacuation and apparent bombing in Donetsk represented the kind of staged operation that officials have said could precede a Russian attack.
“This type of false-flag operation is exactly what Secretary Blinken highlighted in his remarks” at the U.N., the spokesperson said in a statement, which was circulated on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Biden administration. “Announcements like these are further attempts to obscure through lies and disinformation that Russia is the aggressor in this conflict.”
Biden referenced what he characterized as Russian disinformation, accusing Russian state media of making “phony allegations” of a genocide in the Donbas region and pushing claims that Kyiv could be readying an offensive its own.
“There is simply no evidence of these assertions and it defies basic logic to believe the Ukrainians would choose this moment, with well over 150,000 troops arrayed on its borders, to escalate a year-long conflict,” he said.
The Biden administration also on Friday pinned blame on Russian government hackers for this week’s cyber attacks on Ukraine’s banks and defense ministry. Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, speaking earlier to reporters at the White House, said the United States had obtained “technical information that links” the military spy agency GRU to the cyber assault that disrupted online banking and website access for several hours.
Neuberger said the United States and Europe were working to help Ukraine protect itself from additional cyber assaults. She said that should Russia attack the United States or its allies through disruptive cyber attacks, “we are prepared to respond.”
Separatist authorities looked to Russia for assistance as Putin received his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, in Moscow on Friday. The two countries have been conducting a major joint military exercise in Belarus, placing Russian troops, planes and missiles just a few hours’ drive from the Ukrainian capital. Western officials say the maneuvers, due to conclude on Sunday, are part of Russia’s preparations for further conflict in Ukraine.
Speaking to reporters alongside Lukashenko, Putin said he would be willing to follow a diplomatic path out of the crisis but said Moscow would not compromise on its central security demands, which include limits to NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe and a ban on membership for Ukraine.
He downplayed the significance of U.S. and NATO counterproposals on military exercises and other security matters, saying that the West must meet Russian demands as a “package.” The Kremlin has warned it might resort to “military-technical means” should it and NATO nations fail to identify a mutually acceptable outcome.
“We are ready to follow the negotiation track, provided that all issues are considered as a complex, without separation from the main Russian proposals, the implementation of which is an absolute priority for us,” the Russian leader said.
While Biden has ruled out sending U.S. forces to fight in Ukraine, NATO nations — which began increasing their military posture in Eastern Europe after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 — have sent further reinforcements to the alliance’s eastern reaches in recent weeks. On Friday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the sale of 250 Abrams tanks to Poland.
Putin is expected to oversee an exercise of Russia’s nuclear forces on Saturday.
As Donetsk authorities ratcheted up the sense of crisis in eastern Ukraine, authorities in Kyiv pushed back, calling on residents to remain in place and accusing “Russian special services” of planting explosives in public buildings and infrastructure in Donetsk.
The head of Ukraine’s military, Valeriy Zaluzhny, rejected the suggestion that his country would seek to use force to reassert authority over the separatist areas. “I repeat once again — the military-political leadership of the state does not plan and does not conduct offensive operations in the east of Ukraine,” he said in a statement.
“We categorically refute Russian disinformation reports on Ukraine’s alleged offensive operations or acts of sabotage in chemical production facilities,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter. “Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas.”
Monitors with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe denounced intensified cease-fire violations this week in eastern Ukraine, where separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014. A kindergarten was among the sites hit by shelling this week.
The French and German governments, which have been attempting to broker a deal to end that conflict, condemned Donetsk’s accusations of a possible Ukrainian assault to take back the territory. “We do not see any grounds for these allegations and urge Russia to use its influence over the self-proclaimed republics to encourage restraint,” the two countries’ foreign ministers said in a statement.
After the Donetsk evacuation order, Russian state media reported that Putin had dispatched his government’s top emergency response official to Rostov, and had authorized assistance, including medical care, food, and the payment of 10,000 rubles, about $130, for each Donbas refugee arriving there.
The separatist region’s press service circulated videos showing the evacuation of children departing an orphanage. In what appeared to be scripted remarks to a reporter, one young boy in a knit cap and backpack said he had been scared by recent shelling and gunfire.
“Do you think it will be great in Russia?” the reporter asked. “Yes,” the boy said with a smile.
Ilyushina reported Minsk, Dixon from Moscow and Stern from Lviv, Ukraine. Steve Hendrix in Kyiv, Ukraine; John Hudson in Munich; Loveday Morris in Berlin; and Shane Harris, Sean Sullivan, Ellen Nakashima, Ashley Parker and Michael Birnbaum in Washington contributed to this report.