Tensions continued to spike in eastern Ukraine after a humanitarian convoy was hit by a shelling and pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels evacuated civilians from the area amid Russia’s strong presence surrounding the border of the neighboring country.
The Associated Press journalist at the scene reports a car bombing occurred in Donetsk, located on the Kalmius River in the area of Donetsk Oblast on Friday (February 18), but zero casualties and no independent confirmation of the circumstances of the blast were reported.
Shelling and shooting are common within typical conflict zones but not within rebel-held cities such as Donetsk, where the incident took place outside the main government building, the AP reports.
The latest conflict comes hours after U.S. President Joe Biden warned that a possible Russian attack on Ukraine could happen in the coming days amid a strong presence surrounding the border of the neighboring country.
“It’s very high because they have not moved any of their troops out,” Biden told CNN when asked how high the threat level of a Russian invasion was while leaving the White House South Lawn prior to a visit to Ohio to discuss the infrastructure law passed in 2021 on Thursday (February 17). “They have moved more troops in, number one. Number two, we have reason to believe they are engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in. Every indication we have is they are prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine.”
Biden had previously addressed the likelihood of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, but provided a more definitive answer on Thursday.
The president’s comments come one day after U.S. officials reported 7,000 more Russian troopers arrived near Ukraine, which contradicted Moscow’s claim that it pulled back its military presence at the border, CNN reports.
On Friday, the Hill reported “up to 190,000 Russian troops” are currently present along the Ukrainian border.
On Wednesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance hasn’t seen “any withdrawal of Russian forces” at the Ukrainian border, but is hopeful that diplomacy should continue.
“Allies welcome all the diplomatic efforts and there are signs from Moscow that the diplomacy should continue. But so far, we do not see any sign of de-escalation on the ground. No withdrawals of troops or equipment. This may of course change,” Stoltenberg said while addressing reporters after a summit of NATO defense ministers in Brussels via CNN.
Stoltenberg’s comments came after Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky suggestedMonday (February 14) that Russian troops planned to invade on Wednesday.
“We are told that February 16 will be the day of the attack. We will make it the Day of Unity,” Zelensky said in a statement, which spokesman Sergii Nykyforov later claimed was the president — a former comedian — referring “to a date that was spread by the media,” according to a statement obtained by NBC News.
On Monday, the U.S. announced its plans to close its embassy in Kyiv amid tensions in Ukraine and would “temporarily” relocate diplomatic staff to Lviv, which is located about 330 miles west and closer to the border of Poland, where the U.S. has already deployed thousands of troops.
On Saturday (February 12), Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered the 160 members of the Florida National Guard assigned to the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team previously deployed to Ukraine in November 2021 to leave the country and reposition elsewhere in Europe, CNBC reported.
The Kremlin insists the presence is part of military exercises, though the significant growth over the weekend led to Zelenskyy questioning the increasingly strong statements from U.S. officials during the past few days regarding a possible Russian military invasion.