Risk of Russia invading Ukraine still 'very high', Joe Biden says

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has accused Russia of orchestrating "false flag" attacks in Ukraine as a possible pretext for an invasion, ITV News Security Editor Rohit Kachroo reports

The risk of Russia invading Ukraine is "still high", US president Joe Biden said after a day where long-running tensions sparked violence in the East.

Mr Biden’s comments on the Russian threat were unusually dire - he said the invasion threat remains “very high” because Russia has moved more troops toward the border with Ukraine instead of pulling them back. “Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine,” Mr Biden told reporters. He said the US has “reason to believe” that Russia is “engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in,” but did not provide details.

UK officials also gave their assessments on Thursday. Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly said Russia has not only deployed forces to invade Ukraine, but "readied them for action".

Mr Cleverly said at the UN Security Council: "Russia’s actions are clearly designed to intimidate, to threaten and to destabilise Ukraine. We know it, they know it, and the international community knows it.”

He said if the Kremlin is serious about a diplomatic resolution “then it needs to show up to the diplomatic meetings and commit to meaningful OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) talks". Mr Cleverly added that Russia did not show up on Wednesday and “they do not intend to show up on Friday”.

ITV News has studied video showing movement towards the Ukrainian border, not away

He said the whole world can see “Russia has deployed the forces necessary to invade Ukraine and now has them readied for action”.

And addressing Russian rhetoric of a withdrawal, Mr Cleverly said it is “all too clear that the opposition is in fact true and the Russian military build-up continues”.

Russia is believed to have built up some 150,000 military forces - including an estimated 60% of the country's ground forces - around Ukraine’s borders

The view from Washington, Moscow and Kyiv - what is going on? Emma Murphy, Neil Connery and Rohit Kachroo explain

Meanwhile, in Kyiv, UK foreign secretary Liz Truss said the West must unite in the face of Russian aggression against Ukraine, otherwise authoritarians leaders around the world will be emboldened by the Kremlin's actions. In a keynote speech, Ms Truss said there was still time for Moscow to “step back from the brink” and to take the path of diplomacy.

Ms Truss also responded to Mr Putin's recent request that Donetsk and Luhansk, regions in east Ukraine, be recognised as independent.

"We are concerned that Russia is trying to stage a pretext for an armed attack against Ukraine" - Nato's secretary general Jens Stoltenberg warns

"If this request were accepted, it would represent a further attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity," she said.

Ms Truss and Mr Cleverly's warnings come as the Ministry of Defence issued an “intelligence update” that Russia could conduct an invasion “without further warning”.

It was accompanied by an online video with a series of maps showing routes a Russian invasion force could take.

Leaders accuse Russia of running 'false-flag' operation

Nato said on Thursday it is "concerned" Russia is attempting to carry out "false flag operations" to stage a pretext for an armed invasion of Ukraine. Secretary general Jens Stoltenberg added that there was no proof of Moscow's claims it is withdrawing military forces from the Ukrainian border.

"We know that there are many Russian intelligence officers operating in Ukraine," Mr Stoltenberg said at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels.

"They are present in [eastern Ukrainian region] Donbass and we have seen attempts to stage a pretext - false-flag operations - to provide an excuse for invading Ukraine."

Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces traded accusations that both sides had fired across the eastern Ukraine ceasefire line - an agreement drawn up in 2015 as part of the Minsk agreements in a bid to end major combat in the zone, but is said to be regularly violated.

Ukraine's foreign minister accused Russian occupation forces of launching an attack on Thursday on a village during which it was "shelled with heavy weapons" from the occupied territory of Donbass.

A kindergarten building after alleged shelling by separatists forces in Stanytsia Luhanska Credit: Ukrainian Joint Forces Operation via AP

Dmytro Kuleba claimed the attack on the village of Stanytsia Luhanska has left "civilian infrastructure damaged", while the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence alleged a nursery was hit, injuring three employees.

The Ukrainian MoD claimed the ceasefire line was violated 29 times with "prohibited weapons" leaving two civilians and a soldier "wounded".

Meanwhile, separatist official Rodion Miroshnik claimed Ukraine had shelled along the tense line of contact with "heavy" weapons and said rebel forces then returned the fire.

Ukraine disputed the claim, alleging the separatists had shelled its forces, but they didn’t fire back. 

A woman, who heard heavy shelling in the eastern town of Mari'inka, told ITV News: "It happened at around eight or nine in the morning. I can't tell you where the shelling came from…no one was thinking 'where from' or 'what'. It was very loud and a bit scary."

Boris Johnson repeated Mr Stoltenberg's accusations that Russia is undertaking a "false flag operation" and said the situation at the border with Ukraine was "continuing to be very grim", adding that he was refusing to be "blackmailed" by President Putin.

Warnings from the US grow increasingly stark and detailed

In further accusations of Russian aggression, the United States accused Moscow of adding another 7,000 troops to the border with Ukraine.

President Joe Biden said even though there is a "very high" risk of an invasion within "several days", he has no plans to speak to President Vladimir Putin. US secretary of state Anthony Blinken, however, said he has sent a letter to Russia’s foreign minister proposing an in-person next week.

A building in eastern Ukraine caught fire after shelling in the region.

Blinken told the UN Security Council that while they did not know precisely how a Russian invasion would play out, it could begin with a “violent event” which Moscow would blame on Ukraine. “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,” he said.

At the Security Council, Russian foreign minister Sergei Vershinin insisted the accusations that Russia was going to attack Ukraine were “baseless”. “Attempts to place the blame on Russia are futile and baseless and this only hides the goal of shifting the blame away from Ukraine,” he said.

Russia expels No. 2 diplomat at the US embassy in Moscow

In yet another dramatic move on what's shaping up to be an increasingly tense day, Russia expelled the deputy chief of the US diplomatic mission in Moscow, Bart Gorman. According to the embassy's website, Mr Gorman was "responsible for managing key aspects of the US-Russia relationship" and the second-most senior official at the embassy.

Russia provided no details as to why he was expelled, but the US State Department called the move "unprovoked" and "an escalatory step".

Russia's Ministry of Defence released images which they said show's troops moving away from the border. Credit: Russia's Ministry of Defence

Standoff continues to have wide-reaching impact

The uncertainty has left its mark on markets all around the world - on Thursday London’s top shares once again dropped heavily into the red, falling by 0.9%.

Traders have been watching the East nervously, aware that any escalation will be met by economic sanctions on Russia and a possible throttling of Russian gas coming into Europe.

On Wednesday, alliance defence ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to start drawing up plans for a series of new military units in central, eastern and south-eastern Europe.

Ukrainian soldiers celebrate Day of Unity as Western officials warn a Russian invasion could happen any day Credit: AP

While Western allies have made clear they will not intervene militarily in Ukraine – which is not a Nato member – they are looking to shore up their defences elsewhere in eastern Europe.

Britain has already said it is doubling the number of troops in Estonia, with around 850 members of The Royal Welsh battlegroup heading from Sennelager in Germany and bases in Europe for the Baltic state, while 350 Royal Marine commandos are being despatched to Poland.

Four additional RAF Typhoon jets are heading to Cyprus to join Nato patrols over eastern Europe while offshore patrol vessel HMS Trent will shortly be joined in the eastern Mediterranean by HMS Diamond, a Type 45 destroyer.