Ukraine shelling renews invasion fears as Russia expels US diplomat

MOSCOW/KYIV (REUTERS) – Shelling in Ukraine on Thursday renewed Western fears of an imminent Russian invasion as United States President Joe Biden said Moscow is preparing a pretext to justify a possible attack and the Kremlin expelled an American diplomat.

Early morning exchanges of fire between Kyiv’s forces and pro-Russian separatists – who have been at war for years and where a ceasefire is periodically violated – caused alarm as Western countries have said an incursion could come at any time.

One of the deepest crises in post-Cold War relations is playing out in Europe as Russia wants security guarantees, including Kyiv never joining the North Atlantic Treat Organisation (Nato) alliance, and the US and allies offer arms control and confidence-building measures.

While Russia accuses the West of hysteria, saying some its troops have returned to bases and that it has no plans to invade, many Western countries are adamant that the military build-up is continuing ahead of a possible assault.

“We have reason to believe they are engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in,” Mr Biden told reporters at the White House. “Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine and attack Ukraine.”

He ordered Secretary of State Antony Blinken to change his travel plans at the last minute to speak at a United Nations Security Council meeting, where he outlined possible Russian scenarios.

Mr Blinken outlined to the Council what he said were possible scenarios that Russia could create to justify an invasion.

“It could be a fabricated so-called terrorist bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of a mass grave, a staged drone strike against civilians, or a fake – even a real – attack using chemical weapons. Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing, or a genocide, he said.

Diplomatic efforts will continue on Friday when Mr Biden hosts a call with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Britain, the European Union and Nato. Mr Blinken will meet counterparts at the Munich Security Conference.

He will also discuss the crisis late next week with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, “provided there is no further Russian invasion of Ukraine”, the State Department said.

But in a blow to US-Russian relations, Russia expelled US Deputy Chief of Mission Bart Gorman. The move was announced on Thursday but a senior State Department official said he left last week.

Moscow cited the US expulsion of a senior official in Washington, who it said was forced to leave before a replacement could be found as part of a US “visa war”.