The U.S. has obtained intelligence indicating that the Russian government has developed a plan to stage a fake Ukrainian attack to establish a pretext for military action, according to a senior Biden administration official.
The U.S. unveiled the intelligence during another day of diplomatic efforts to prevent the simmering tensions from boiling over into war.
After talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow by hosting talks.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelenskyy.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, meanwhile, voiced concerns that Russia continues to build up troop numbers along Ukraine’s borders, including in Belarus.
Here are things to know Thursday about the international tensions surrounding Ukraine, which has at least 100,000 Russian troops massed along its borders.
U.S. WARNING OF A RUSSIAN ‘FALSE-FLAG’ OPERATION.
U.S. intelligence indicates that the Russian government has developed a plan to stage a false attack that would depict the Ukrainian military or its intelligence forces assaulting Russian territory, a senior Biden administration official said Thursday.
The plan includes production of a graphic propaganda video that would show staged explosions and would use corpses and actors depicting grieving mourners, according to the official, who was not authorized to comment and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The plan, which was revealed in declassified intelligence shared with Ukrainian officials and European allies in recent days, is the latest allegation by the U.S. and Britain that Russia is plotting to use a false pretext to go to war against Ukraine.
The White House is concerned that the video, if released, could provide Putin “the spark” it believes he is looking for to credibly put military action in motion.
__ By Nomaan Merchant and Aamer Madhani in Washington.
DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS TO DEFUSE CRISIS
Erdogan has again offered to host talks between Moscow and Kyiv aimed at easing tensions that have sparked fears of war.
“Turkey is prepared to undertake its part in order to end the crisis between two friendly nations that are its neighbors in the Black Sea,” he said during a joint news conference with Zelenskyy.
“Instead of fueling the fire, we act with the logical aim of reducing the tensions,” Erdogan said as he offered to host a meeting “at a leadership level or technical level talks.”
He reiterated Turkey’s commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Meanwhile, Putin met with Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez in Moscow and then spoke by phone to Macron, who had a call Wednesday night with U.S. President Joe Biden. Macron then spoke with Zelenskyy.
The calls were part of Macron’s efforts to “pursue dialogue to identify elements that could lead to de-escalation,” according to Macron’s office. They discussed the efforts to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine and “conditions for strategic balance in Europe, which should allow for the reduction of risks on the ground and guarantee security on the continent.”
— By Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Angela Charlton in Paris.
NATO: ‘SIGNIFICANT’ RUSSIAN TROOP BUILDUP IN BELARUS
Stoltenberg told reporters at NATO headquarters that Moscow has now deployed more troops and equipment to Belarus that at any time in the last 30 years.
The NATO chief said Russian forces in Belarus are likely to rise to 30,000, including special forces, supported by fighter jets and missiles.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu arrived in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on Thursday to monitor preparations for major Russia-Belarus war games expected to take place Feb. 10-20.
Stoltenberg again called on Russia to “de-escalate,” and repeated warnings from the West that “any further Russian aggression would have severe consequences and carry a heavy price.”
— By Lorne Cook in Brussels, and Dasha Litvinova in Moscow.
FRANCE SENDING TROOPS TO ROMANIA
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed Thursday that Paris is sending troop reinforcements to Romania under NATO command, as part of France’s commitment to the alliance and its member states in Eastern Europe.
He did not say how many French soldiers will be deployed. The announcement came a day after the U.S. said it was moving troops stationed in Germany to Romania.
Le Drian told a press conference in Bucharest that moving troops to NATO’s eastern flank should not disrupt diplomatic efforts to ease tensions over Ukraine.
“The real goal here is de-escalation and all must be done to reach it as soon as possible,” Le Drian said. “How do we achieve it? By deterring and by talking.”
Romania’s Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu said the two-track approach of military deterrence and diplomacy is the only way to ease boiling tensions and avert war.
UKRAINIAN DEFENSE MINISTER URGES CALM
Ukraine’s defense minister is urging calm, saying the likelihood of a Russian invasion was “low.”
Oleksii Reznikov said the threat of attack has loomed over the country since 2014, the year Russia seized Crimea, but he added: “There are no grounds for panic, fear, flight or packing of bags.”
The minister said there are about 115,000 Russian troops near Ukraine’s border, including those deployed to Belarus for war games, but he said no battle groups have been detected along Ukraine’s border with Belarus.
He also reiterated earlier assurances that Kyiv doesn’t plan to attack rebel-held areas in the war-torn east of Ukraine or Crimea — something the Kremlin has accused Kyiv of plotting.
— By Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv.
PUTIN HEADING TO WINTER OLYMPICS
After his meeting with Fernandez, Putin heads Thursday night to Beijing to bolster Moscow’s ties with China and coordinate their policies in the face of Western pressure.
An ice hockey fan, Putin will also attend Friday’s opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics.
His talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday will be their first face-to-face since 2019 and will help cement a strong personal relationship that has been a key factor behind a growing partnership between the two former Communist rivals.
Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign affairs adviser, said the visit would mark a new stage in a Russia-Chinа partnership that he described as a “key factor contributing to sustainable global development and helping counter destructive activities by certain countries.”
Ushakov emphasized that China backs Russia in the current standoff over Ukraine.
— By Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow.