The four officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive information.
Russian forces continued to increase near the Ukrainian border, officials said, and shelling intensified in eastern Ukraine, adding to increasingly gloomy attitudes in Washington and European capitals that had hoped to prevent war. Russia is continuing its military exercises in Belarus, close to the Ukrainian border, which intelligence officials say could cover up an invasion. The exercises must end on Sunday.
Biden told reporters at the White House that the threat of invasion remains “very high” and that Russia could create an excuse to do so.
“We have reason to believe they are engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to come in,” Biden said. “Every indication we have is that they are ready to enter Ukraine, to attack Ukraine.” He added that “my feeling is that it will happen in the next few days”.
Biden’s pessimistic view coincided with new intelligence assessments of Russia’s intentions.
Washington has obtained “credible information that Russia’s claims may be part of a disinformation campaign designed to mislead” the United States, a US official said. Two other U.S. officials and a European official independently confirmed they were aware of the intelligence.
When Russia announced its withdrawal on Tuesday, NATO leaders were initially skeptical. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he had seen no evidence of a withdrawal.
Two of the US officials said there was additional intelligence indicating that a false flag of Russia would involve the use of a chemical agent that would immobilize civilians and then use corpses to make it look like the Ukrainians had gassed and killed civilians.
US officials have yet to produce much of the evidence behind their claims 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 leaked satellite images that show Russian troop movements. And commercial satellite companies and independent investigators have corroborated this information from their own sources, many of which are publicly available.
Addressing the UN Security Council on Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken listed dire possibilities that Russia could use as pretexts for intervention, including the staging of a chemical weapons attack.
Potential Russian false flag action could include a “so-called fabricated-in-Russia terrorist attack”, a fake mass grave, a staged drone attack on civilians, or a “fake or even real attack using chemical weapons,” Blinken said. .
He called on Russia to desist from any future invasion of Ukraine and return its forces to their barracks.
“This is a time 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 in the world.” He said he asked his Russian counterpart to meet him in Europe next week.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin, who chaired the meeting, dismissed the accusations, saying Western nations had taken an ‘ostrich stance’ on Ukraine and had not put pressure on Kyiv to implement the 2015 peace accords that are widely seen as favorable to Russia.
He said the United States, as part of its effort to pre-empt what US officials saw as a punitive attack on Ukraine, had raised false hopes 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 left 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 convened by Russia, which currently holds its rotating presidency, to discuss the implementation of the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements on ending the war in eastern Ukraine.
Russia offered little appeasement after calmer tones earlier this week. The Russian Foreign Ministry tore up US proposals to address Kremlin security concerns, and the State Department confirmed on Thursday that Russia had expelled the second-tier US diplomat in Moscow, Deputy Chief of Mission Bart Gorman , last week. The department denounced the unusual move in a statement as “an escalation step.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the United States had not agreed to security guarantees for Russia and that “Russia will be forced to respond, including through the implementation of military-technical measures.” He did not specify what those measures would be, but he denied plans for a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Conflict fears sent markets plunging on Thursday, with the S&P 500 and Nasdaq indexes falling more than 2% and the Dow Jones closing in. Global markets were also down overall.
The diplomatic fire came as the long-running conflict in eastern Ukraine escalated. An observation mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said on Thursday it had counted 591 ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, up from 153 the day before. Western officials have warned that Russia could use developments in the region as an excuse to invade.
The separatists rained artillery, mortar shells and other ammunition on the front, the Ukrainian military said in a statement posted on social media. In the government-held village of Stanytsia Luhanska near Luhansk, an artillery strike ripped a hole in a kindergarten building. A hole was blown in a wall and footballs were strewn among the debris, according to photos posted on social media. Three adults suffered concussions, officials said. No children were reported injured. The Ukrainian army said the village – which has not been targeted often – was hit by 32 artillery shells.
A separatist leader told Russian state media that Ukrainian government forces opened fire on several separatist positions, seeking to escalate the conflict. He did not provide evidence to support his claims and Ukraine denied shelling Kremlin-backed forces in its east, according to Reuters. The separatists described the alleged Ukrainian bombardment as a “large-scale provocation” and said they had retaliated.
In Meanwhile, Russian forces continue to build and move towards the Ukrainian border, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters in Brussels, despite Kremlin promises to withdraw troops.
“We don’t see that. Quite the contrary. We see them adding to the more than 150,000 they have already deployed along their very border in the past two days,” Austin said. We have seen some of these troops approaching this border. We saw them flying in more combat and support aircraft. We’ve seen them hone their preparation in the Black Sea. We even saw them getting blood.
He added: “You know, I was a soldier myself not too 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 prepare to pack and go home.
The U.S. military 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 American presence there.
Intelligence officials painted a bleak picture of what they were seeing.
“Most military indicators are in the red,” said a Western intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential assessments. “It all comes down to a political decision whether or not to launch an attack. The Russians are actively manufacturing the casus belli. This activity seems to be more than just a military exercise.
In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko has introduced some uncertainty into previous promises that the huge Russian force carrying out military maneuvers there would withdraw at the end of exercises this weekend. He said he would consult with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Friday about how long the troops will stay.
“If we decide, we will remove them in one day,” Lukashenko told reporters. “If we decide on a month, they will stay here for a month. The armed forces will be here as long as necessary. He also did not rule out the permanent retention of some Russian military equipment in his country, contradicting previous statements by Belarus that everything would be withdrawn.
Horton reported from Kiev. 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.