World leaders have described a rise in attacks across the frontline between Ukrainian forces and Russian separatists within Ukraine as a possible ploy to give Russia an excuse to invade.
There are claims from both sides that shelling has increased in the eastern Donbas region with Russian separatists describing it as a “large-scale provocation”.
They accused Ukrainian government forces of opening fire on their territory – taken from Ukraine in 2014 – four times in the past 24 hours.
Ukraine says though its forces have been targeted it has not fired back.
NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said: “We are concerned that Russia is trying to stage a pretext for an armed attack against Ukraine, there is still no clarity, no certainty about the Russian intentions.”
US President Joe Biden said Washington has “reason to believe that they [Russia] are engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in”.
He said there is “every indication” that “they’re prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine” and he believes an invasion will begin within “several days”.
And British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the reported attacks in the eastern Donbas region are “a blatant attempt by the Russian government to fabricate pretexts for invasion… this is straight out of the Kremlin playbook”.
Boris Johnson described an alleged attack on a nursery on the Ukrainian side as a false pretext for Russian aggression.
The attack, in which two civilians were injured, happened in the village of Stanitsya Luhanska.
Speaking at a military base in Lincolnshire, the prime minister said: “Today, as I’m sure you’ve already picked up, a kindergarten was shelled in what we are taking to be – well, we know – was a false flag operation designed to discredit the Ukrainians, designed to create a pretext, a spurious provocation for Russian action.
“We fear very much that that is the kind of thing we will see more of over the next few days.”
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Sky’s Moscow correspondent Diana Magnay says his understanding is disputed by the facts on the ground, saying that “the shelled kindergarten… is on the Ukrainian side of the line of contact.
“Terrible as this is, it is not an illustration of a false flag operation. That would look more like an attack within the separatist republics, staged by the separatists, where they pin the blame on Ukraine.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the nursery shelling a “big provocation” to Ukraine as he called for all diplomats to remain in Ukraine as their monitoring activities “are an additional deterrent”.
What is a false flag operation?
A false flag is a covert military operation designed to appear as though it was carried out by an opponent and therefore create a false justification for war.
The term can also refer to things done by individuals or organisations to bring down their political enemies.
Nazi forces used false flag tactics in the Gleiwitz incident of 1939.
Hitler’s army posed as Polish soldiers and staged an attack on a radio station inside the country. It fuelled support of a German invasion of Poland, which eventually led to the Second World War.
Similarly in 1788 Swedish soldiers dressed up in Russian uniforms to stage an attack on the Swedish outpost of Puumala.
It resulted in the Swedish National Assembly voting for an offensive retaliation and in turn triggered the two-year Russo-Swedish War.
Shelling provokes fears war imminent
Details of the incidents could not be independently confirmed and initial reports suggest they were on a similar scale to ceasefire violations common over the eight-year conflict.
However, as they come at a time when the West is warning Russia is about to invade Ukraine, fears a war is about to start have heightened.
A senior Western official told Sky News an “uptick in violence is common at this time of year”, however some feel it could be a “false flag” to give Russia an excuse to invade.
US Secretary of state Anthony Blinken said it is his view that Moscow “plans to manufacture a pretext for its attack”.
“This could be a violent event that Russia will blame on Ukraine, or an outrageous accusation that Russia will level against the Ukrainian government,” he told the UN Security Council.
“We don’t know exactly the form it will take. It could be a fabricated so-called terrorist bombing inside Russia; the invented discovery of a mass grave; a stage 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, making a mockery of a concept that we in this chamber do not take lightly.”
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Kremlin says ‘fake reports’ of more troops at border
Russia has said it is pulling back troops from the border, with a Kremlin spokesman on Thursday saying certain phases of drills near Ukraine and in Crimea are nearing their end and those troops will then return to their bases.
The spokesman said it takes “weeks” to deploy forces for military exercises and returning troops back to their bases afterwards “cannot be done in a day”.
He said the Russian defence ministry has a “clear timetable” to withdraw forces after the war games but did not give details.
The Kremlin spokesman also said he hopes people will not believe “fake reports” about a possible Russian invasion date.
US and UK says Russian troops moving towards border
However, the US defence secretary said the US has seen some Russian forces inching closer to the Ukrainian border and they are stocking up on blood.
Speaking at the UN Security Council, Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said Russia is “patently failing to live up to the international commitments that it has made around military transparency”.
He said everyone can see “Russia has deployed the forces necessary to invade Ukraine and now has them readied for action”.
Earlier on Thursday, UK armed forces minister James Heappey told Sky News Kremlin claims troops are moving away from the border are “inaccurate, it’s disinformation”.
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He said NATO intelligence shows more troops are moving towards the border and into formations and positions they could “credibly begin a manoeuvre” from, as well as building field hospitals.
Mr Heappey, who served with the army in Iraq, said there are large concentrations of troops in Crimea and ships in the Black Sea that pose “a real threat” to the key port of Odesa, as well as a large number of troops just to the north of Kyiv.
UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace, ahead of a NATO meeting in Brussels, said: “We have seen the opposite of some of the statements. We have seen an increase of troops over the last 48 hours, up to 7,000.
“We are deadly serious and we’re going to face the threat that is currently being posed.”