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Shelling attacks begin in Ukraine as Russia threatens military action, adds 7,000 troops

OSCE SMM monitoring the movement of heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine. (OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine/Flickr)
February 17, 2022

Pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine have accused Ukrainian forces of artillery attacks Thursday, refreshing concerns in Ukraine and the west that pro-Russian elements may attempt a “false flag” operation as a pretext to invade Ukraine.

On Thursday, Russia also accused the U.S. of failing to give a constructive response to its security concerns around Ukraine and said it may have to take its own actions, including military measures, to satisfy those security concerns.

Russia’s state-run TASS News Agency reported claims from Oleg Nikitin, a militia leader in the pro-Russian separatist region of Donetsk, who said they were attacked by Ukrainian forces and returned retaliatory fire.

A Ukrainian military statement said pro-Russian separatists fired first. The Ukrainian military said the separatists fired 32 shells, which damaged a kindergarten, injured three kindergarten workers and knocked out power in the area. The Ukrainian military said, “Ukrainian defenders opened fire in response to stop the activity of the opponent only in case of threatening the lives of soldiers.”

“It should be noted that the opponent continues to use his propaganda methods of conducting an information war to accuse the Armed Forces of Ukraine of shelling civilians, hiding their own sneaky actions,” the Ukrainian military said.

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv — which is temporarily closed and relocated amid the threat of Russian invasion — tweeted to confirm the shelling attacks. “The aggressor in Donbas is clear – Russia,” the embassy said, calling it “a heinous Russian violation of the Minsk Agreements” and a “disregard for Ukrainian civilians.”

More than 150,000 Russian troops are still gathered near Ukraine’s borders. The incident has led some western officials to believe this may have been the Russian “false flag” effort their intelligence analysts had warned about. For weeks, western nations have raised claims Russia may attack its own troops or pro-Russian elements in Ukraine and then blame the attack on the Ukrainian government in a pretext to invade.

President Joe Biden told reporters on Thursday morning, “We have reason to believe that they are engaged in a false-flag operation to have an excuse to go in. Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine.”

Following the artillery exchange, PA Media tweeted, “#Breaking [British] Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the attack on a kindergarten in Ukraine was a ‘false flag operation designed to discredit the Ukrainians’, adding: ‘We fear very much that that is a thing we will see more of over the next few days.’”

In recent days, Russia has claimed its multi-month troop buildup near Ukraine was just part of regular training. Russian military officials have said troops deployed near Ukraine’s borders have already begun to return to their home bases and Russian diplomats have mocked western invasion concerns.

Despite Russia’s claims of moving troops away from Ukraine, the U.S. has remained skeptical. A senior U.S. administration official told the Associated Press on Thursday that satellite imagery indicates Russia has actually increased its force near Ukraine by about 7,000 troops. In response to questions about the alleged troop movements, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov officials told TASS that they won’t consider foreign complaints about how Russia moves its troops within its own borders.

“First of all, we are not ready to and we won’t consider complaints with regards to how we move the armed forces on the territory of our country,” Peskov said. “This is our sovereign right and we don’t intend to discuss it with anyone.”

On Thursday, Russia said it also gave its reaction to the U.S. response of its latest security demands around Ukraine. The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported some of the contents of Russia’s 10-page diplomatic communication, which was provided to U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan. Russia said, “the American side did not give a constructive response to the basic elements of the draft treaty prepared by the Russian side with the United States on security guarantees.”

“In the absence of the readiness of the American side to agree on firm, legally binding guarantees to ensure our security from the United States and its allies, Russia will be forced to respond, including by implementing measures of a military-technical nature,” the Russian communication continued.