Russia has added another 7,000 troops to the more than 150,000 forces already in place along the border with Ukraine.
The move comes in direct contradiction to claims by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin that forces were being withdrawn in the wake of a military drill with Belarus.
Russia Expels US Diplomat
Russia on Thursday expelled deputy US Ambassador Bartle Gorman from the country, the RIA news agency reported, quoting the US Embassy in Moscow. Washington will “respond” to the move, the embassy said.
No reason was given for the expulsion.
Shortly after the announcement of Gorman’s expulsion, and the same day Russia submitted its response to Western security proposals, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website became “unavailable,” Reuters reported.
Ukraine Reprimands Israeli Envoy
In a separate move, Ukraine has rebuked Israel’s Ambassdor Michael Brodsky in Kiev.
The reprimand came after following a conversation with Russia’s envoy to the Middle East, Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Bogdanov over concerns about Israelis in Ukraine.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Ushpiz told Bogdanov that “Israel is concerned about the Israelis who are in Ukraine, and especially the diplomats who are still there,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Havat said Thursday night.
Contrary to some media reports, Ushpiz did not specifically ask for Russian assistance in the evacuation of Israelis from the war zone in the event of an invasion of Ukraine, Havat told JewishPress.com.
The Foreign Ministry spokesperson declined to provide details on Russia’s reply to Israel’s concerns.
Thus far only 3,000 Israelis have returned to the Jewish State from Ukraine. According to the Foreign Ministry, there are at least another 10,000 Israelis who remain there, not including those who may be in the Donbas region, where Israel’s Foreign Ministry has no contact.
NATO Defense Ministers to Deploy More Land Forces
The defense ministers of NATO member states said in a statement Wednesday they were “gravely concerned by the very large scale, unprovoked and unjustified Russian military buildup in and around Ukraine and Belarus.”
The group urged Russia “in the strongest possible terms” to choose the path of diplomacy and to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine.
“Russia’s actions pose a serious threat to Euro-Atlantic security. As a consequence and to ensure the defense of all Allies, we are deploying additional land forces in the eastern part of the Alliance, as well as additional maritime and air assets, as announced by Allies, and have increased the readiness of our forces. Our measures are and remain preventive, proportionate and non-escalatory. We are prepared to further strengthen our defensive and deterrent posture to respond to all contingencies.
“Our commitment to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty is iron-clad. We stand united to defend each other,” NATO defense ministers said.
Russia Claims Will Be ‘Forced to Respond’
Russia warned Thursday in a Telegram post after giving its official response to the proposed US and NATO solutions to its security demands that it will be “forced to respond, including through the implementation of military-technical measures.”
The threat was posted on Thursday, the same day Russia expelled America’s second-highest diplomat in the country, Deputy US Ambassador Bartle Gorman.
The warning came in response to what Russia said was the lack of a “constructive response” to the draft treaty prepared by Moscow on its demand for security guarantees from the US and NATO.
“We state that the American side did not give a constructive response to the basic elements of the draft treaty with the United States prepared by the Russian side on security guarantees,” a translation of the post on the Opoyicentral website read.
“The package nature of Russian proposals was ignored, from which ‘convenient’ topics were deliberately chosen, which, in turn, were ‘twisted’ in the direction of creating advantages for the United States and its allies,” it said. “The growing military activity of the United States and NATO directly at Russian borders is alarming.”
The post concluded with an open threat.
“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 through the implementation of military-technical measures,” it concluded.
Russia’s Ceasefire Violations, Schools Shelled
There have already been some military interactions between the two sides.
“At about 9:00 am on February 17, Russian occupation troops fired on the village of Stanytsia Luhanska. One of the shells hit a kindergarten where children were at the time,” the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) reported. Two teachers were reportedly injured by the blasts, and local municipal infrastructure was damaged, along with a power outage caused by the attack that affected half the village.
Shortly after the attack on the kindergarten, Ukraine reported more shelling around 50 miles from Stanytsia Luhanska, at the community of Popasna, reporting that a school and a two nearby houses were hit. No injuries were immediately reported, according to Britain’s Daily Mail.
As of 11 am Thursday (Feb. 17), “29 ceasefire violations” by Russian occupation troops were recorded, including 27 the JFO said were in violation of the Minsk Arms Agreement.”
Ukraine’s Alleged Ceasefire Violations
The RIA news agency, a Russian mouthpiece, reported that Ukrainian forces opened fire on rebels in Luhansk, allegedly using machine guns and grenades in the attack.
Luhansk representatives said Ukraine’s military forces “grossly violated the ceasefire, using military weapons,” according to the Hebrew-language Maariv newspaper.
Russia’s Investigative Committee also claimed that mass graves of hundreds of Russian-speaking civilians were found in the Donbas region. Russia accused Ukraine of carrying out a genocide.
Russia Adds Forces, Field Hospital, Helicopters
“We continue to see forces, especially forces that would be in the vanguard of any renewed aggression against Ukraine, continuing to be at the border, to mass at the border,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Wednesday.
Also Wednesday, UK Defense Intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Sir Jim Hockenhull warned that Russia continued to add “armored vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital . . . towards Ukraine’s borders. Russia has the military mass in place to conduct an invasion of Ukraine,” Hockenhull confirmed.
“We have now confirmed that in the last several days, Russia has increased its troop presence along the Ukrainian border by as many as 7,000 troops, with some arriving as recently as today,” a senior US official told reporters on a call Wednesday evening.
“Every indication we have now is they mean only to publicly offer to talk and make claims about de-escalation while privately mobilizing for war,” the official said, adding that the US is receiving indications that Russia could launch a false pretext to justify an invasion of Ukraine “at any moment.”