Russia has filed a report with the United Nations alleging that Ukraine’s military has committed “crimes” against residents of the eastern Donbas region, according to documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Russia separately expelled the No. 2 official at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Deputy Chief of Mission Bart Gorman, a State Department spokesman said Thursday.
The actions came as President Biden warned that the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is high, saying that it could happen in the next several days and that Moscow hadn’t moved troops out. “Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine,” he said Thursday. “My sense is it will happen in the next several days.”
Mr. Biden also said he had no plans to call Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian documents viewed by the Journal allege the “genocide of the Russian-speaking population of Donbas.” The country’s U.N. ambassador is expected to criticize Ukraine and Western nations on Thursday over the plight of Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, the documents show.
In response, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is planning to make a rare appearance at the U.N. Security Council, part of a growing effort by Washington to counteract what it sees as Russian disinformation that could serve as a pretext for renewed war in Ukraine.
Mr. Blinken’s spokesman, Ned Price, on Wednesday warned, “We are particularly concerned about President Putin and other officials—their ongoing mentions of ‘genocide’ in the Donbas.”
The expulsion of the No. 2 official at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow follows a pattern of expulsions of U.S. diplomats that have seen the Moscow embassy staffing reduced to levels below those of the Russian embassy in Washington. State Department officials say staffing at the Moscow embassy isn’t insufficient.
“Russia’s action against our DCM was unprovoked and we consider this an escalatory step and are considering our response,” the spokesman said, noting that Mr. Gorman had a valid visa and had been in Russia less than three years.
Pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian authorities earlier Thursday traded allegations of cease-fire violations along the tense front line separating the two sides. Representatives of two breakaway Russian-backed and Russian-armed statelets in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, known as the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic, said Ukraine’s armed forces had launched grenades and mortars into their territory.
The Ukrainian government said Kyiv-controlled areas of the Luhansk region came under sustained shelling Thursday morning. A direct hit to a kindergarten in the town of Stanytsia Luhanska injured two teachers, the military said. Shelling also destroyed a house in the village of Vrubivka and hit the courtyard of a high school. There was no immediate information on casualties there, according to the local civilian-military administration.
Such exchanges have occurred regularly in the years since the conflict in Donbas began in 2014, despite a cease-fire agreed to a year later, and have occasionally erupted into wider-scale fighting. But they carry a heightened risk now amid the wider standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine.
Russia has deployed 130,000 heavily armed troops, effectively surrounding Ukraine on three sides, something Western officials have warned could be a prelude to an outright invasion.
In Donbas, Russia fomented a separatist conflict in 2014 and then sent military forces to cut off the Luhansk and Donetsk territories from Kyiv’s control.
In recent days, Moscow has pointed to what it says is Ukraine’s military activity near Donbas as an escalating threat.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists Thursday that activities by Kyiv that the Kremlin describes as provocative “have intensified in the last days,” according to Russian state news agency TASS. He added that Ukrainian forces were prepared for an offensive.
“It’s clear that the situation in the Donbas is ramping up,” he said. “The situation at the borders of Russia may ignite at any moment.”
Western officials believe the Kremlin could point to alleged military action by Ukrainian forces in Donbas as a way to cast any Russian incursion as an attempt to come to the aid of Russian speakers in the area.
“The situation on the line of contact sharply escalated,” Donetsk representatives said on the territory’s official website. “The enemy is making attempts to unleash active hostilities.”
The Kremlin pushed back on the idea that Moscow is looking for a pretext to invade. “Attempts to shift all the blame for what is happening around Ukraine onto Russia will not succeed,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday.
He added that “there are no plans for negotiations with Kyiv.”
“We have repeatedly warned that the excessive concentration of the armed forces of Ukraine in the immediate vicinity of the demarcation line could pose a terrible danger,” he said. “We are watching closely. We will see how the situation develops.”
Stanytsia Luhanska, a village inside Ukrainian territory, was shelled with heavy weapons from the occupied territory in Donbas. Civilian infrastructure was damaged, according to the Ukrainian military. “We call on all partners to swiftly condemn this severe violation of Minsk agreements by Russia amid an already tense security situation,” said Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, referring to the 2015 accord that ended major combat in the Donbas.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the Ukrainian-held part of the Donetsk region Wednesday night, meeting with military and security personnel. Ukraine has raised the alert status of its armed forces and said it has distributed more ammunition to troops on the front lines.
“We are not afraid of any warnings, we are not afraid of any enemies, we are not afraid of any dates,” Mr. Zelensky said in the city of Mariupol, according to a transcript posted by his office. “We will defend ourselves on Feb. 16, on Feb. 17, in March and in April, in September and in December. The war has lasted eight years, and we have become eight times stronger in that time.”
The Kremlin has denied that it plans to attack Ukraine and in recent days Moscow has said it is drawing down some troops and released footage of tanks and armored personnel carriers departing areas such as Crimea. But Western officials have said Russia is continuing its military buildup.
On Tuesday, Russian legislators voted to send a resolution to President Putin urging him to formally recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Mr. Putin said he believed the vote reflected the fact that members of parliament had taken into account public opinion, adding that “it’s obvious in this context that the overwhelming majority of people in our country feel sympathy for people in Donbas, support them and hope that the situation would improve dramatically.”
The possibility that Mr. Putin could recognize the separatist territories in Donbas keeps the pressure on Kyiv and gives the Kremlin another bargaining chip in his talks with Western leaders.