The reported shelling of a kindergarten in eastern Ukraine was a “provocation” designed to create a pretext for Russian military action, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday.
His assertion came after Kyiv and Moscow traded allegations over intensified fighting involving Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, with the US government also warning that Russia appeared to be moving towards an invasion.
“A kindergarten was shelled in what we… know was a false flag operation designed to discredit the Ukrainians, designed to create a pretext, a spurious provocation for Russian action,” Johnson told reporters.
“We fear very much that is the kind of thing we will see more of over the next few days. The picture is continuing to be very grim,” he added.
The Ukrainian military’s command centre in the country’s east alleged that Russian-backed forces had, “with special cynicism”, fired heavy artillery at the village of Stanytsia-Luganska.
But Russian news agencies reported that pro-Moscow separatist forces in Lugansk had accused Ukraine of escalating fighting.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss tweeted that “this is straight out of the Kremlin playbook”, ahead of talks with Ukrainian leaders in Kyiv, adding that Britain would “continue to call out Russia’s disinformation campaign”.
Ukraine and its Western allies say Russia has deployed a huge potential invasion force on the country’s borders. US intelligence has accused Moscow of seeking to create a pretext by faking an atrocity.
Truss earlier Thursday warned that Russia could drag out the crisis for “months” in order to challenge Western unity.
She warned of “severe economic costs for Russia” if it did invade, adding that it would make it “unconscionable” for its lucrative Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe to go ahead.
– ‘Running sore’ –
The United States on Wednesday dismissed reports that Russia was withdrawing troops and accused Moscow of sending more soldiers.
“There is currently no evidence the Russians are withdrawing from border regions near Ukraine,” Truss agreed in a comment piece for the Daily Telegraph.
She said Moscow “could drag this out much longer in a brazen ploy to spend weeks more — if not months — subverting Ukraine and challenging Western unity”.
“We cannot allow this situation to become a running sore,” she added.
Britain’s head of military intelligence said late Wednesday that “contrary to their claims, Russia continues to build up military capabilities near Ukraine”.
“This includes sightings of additional armoured vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital moving towards Ukraine’s borders. Russia has the military mass in place to conduct an invasion of Ukraine,” Lieutenant General Jim Hockenhull said.
Following a visit by Johnson this month, Truss arrived in Kyiv Thursday before heading on to Poland and a security conference in Germany.
“Our friends such as Ukraine and Poland have lived in the constant shadow of such threatening behaviour for generations. That is why we must be unyielding in defence of self-determination and sovereignty,” she wrote.
Russia is demanding a ban on Ukraine from entering NATO, but Truss said “we must preserve NATO’s open door policy and Ukraine’s right to choose its own path”.
British defence minister Ben Wallace warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that his seizure of Crimea in 2014 resulted in “more troops on your borders, more defence spending throughout NATO”.
“That is the strategic error Putin is potentially about to make,” he told Sky News.