US President Joe Biden has warned that Russia could still invade Ukraine within days.
Nato allies accused Russia of misleading the world with “disinformation” by saying it was returning some troops to their bases – one of the gestures Russia made this week that briefly cooled temperatures and raised hopes for peace.
Russia is believed to have some 150,000 forces around Ukraine’s borders.
Speaking at the White House, Mr Biden said Washington saw no signs of a Russian withdrawal of forces, and said the US has “reason to believe” that Russia is “engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in”.
He told reporters: “Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine.”
The State Department said Russia ordered the deputy chief of mission to the US Embassy in Moscow, Bart Gorman, to leave the country, calling the move “unprovoked” and “an escalatory step”.
Russia provided no details of why he was expelled.
Speaking at the UN Security Council on the crisis, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sketched out in graphic detail how Washington contends any Russian attack would begin and unfold, revealing some conclusions of US intelligence in a strategy the US and Britain have hoped will expose and pre-empt any invasion planning.
The US has declined to reveal much of the evidence underlying its claims.
A sudden, seemingly violent event staged by Russia to justify invasion would kick it off, Mr Blinken told UN diplomats.
“We don’t know exactly” the pretext — a “so-called terrorist bombing” inside Russia, a staged drone strike, “a fake, even a real attack … using chemical weapons,” he said.
It would open with cyberattacks, along with missiles and bombs across Ukraine, he said. Painting the US picture further, Mr Blinken described the entry of Russian troops, advancing on Kyiv, a city of nearly three million, and other “key targets that have already been identified and mapped out”.
US intelligence indicated Russia also would target “specific groups” of Ukrainians, Mr Blinken said, again without giving details.
Tensions also spiked along the line that separates Ukrainian forces from Russia-backed separatists in the country’s east, with the parties accusing each other of intensive shelling.
Russia held out an offer of diplomacy, handing the US a response on Thursday to offers to engage in talks on limiting missile deployments in Europe, restrictions on military drills and other confidence-building measures.
The response, published by the Foreign Ministry, deplored the West’s refusal to meet the main Russian security and demands and reaffirmed that Moscow could take unspecified “military-technical measures” if the US and its allies continue to stonewall its concerns.
At the same time, it said Russia was ready to discuss measures to enhance security in Europe by discussing limits on missile deployments, restrictions on patrol flights by strategic bombers and other confidence-building steps.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed to New York for the UN Security Council meeting and then Germany for the Munich Security Conference.
Western powers estimate Russia has 150,000-plus troops massed outside Ukraine’s borders.
“We’ve seen some of those troops inch closer to that border. We see them fly in more combat and support aircraft,” US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said at Nato headquarters in Brussels.
“We see them sharpen their readiness in the Black Sea. We even see them stocking up their blood supplies. You don’t do these sort of things for no reason, and you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home.”
British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the West has seen “an increase of troops over the last 48 hours, up to 7,000.” That squared with what a US administration official said a day earlier. The top EU official said similar.
British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey even called Russia’s claim to be withdrawing troops “disinformation”. Russia accuses the West of the same.
Russia has “enough troops, enough capabilities, to launch a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine with very little or no warning time,” Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
“The fact that you’re putting a battle tank on a train and moving it in some direction doesn’t prove a withdrawal of troops.”
Moscow said several times this week that some forces are pulling back to their bases, but it gave few details that would allow for an independent assessment of the scope and direction of the troop movement.
Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov offered a bit more detail on Thursday, saying that Russian tank and infantry units that took part in drills in the Kursk and Bryansk regions neighbouring Ukraine were pulling back to their permanent bases in Nizhny Novgorod region.
He said that some of those units already had arrived at their bases after a 700km journey east.
Troops deployed for exercises in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, have moved back to Chechnya and Dagestan in Russia’s North Caucasus, he noted.
He also said Russian troops involved in drills Belarus will also move back to their garrisons after war games there wrap up on Sunday.
Maj Gen Konashenkov did not mention the numbers of troops that were deployed and did not say how many of them returned.
Nato, meanwhile, has moved troops and military equipment into eastern Europe in a display of resolve meant to deter any Russian aggression and underline its intent to defend Nato’s eastern members, in the unlikely event that they too become a target.
The US has started deploying 5,000 troops to Poland and Romania. Another 8,500 are on standby, and some US troops are expected to move toward Bulgaria.
Britain is sending hundreds of soldiers to Poland, offering more warships and planes, and doubling its personnel in Estonia. Germany, the Netherlands and Norway are sending additional troops to Lithuania. Denmark and Spain are providing jets for air policing in the Baltic Sea region.
Even if an attack does not materialise, the sustained Russian pressure on Ukraine has further hobbled its shaky economy and left an entire nation under constant strain — a situation that could last indefinitely.
Ukraine already has been the stage of fighting for eight years, and tensions soared again on Thursday in the conflict in the country’s east, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops since 2014.
Separatist authorities in the Luhansk region reported an increase in Ukrainian shelling along the tense line of contact, describing it as a “large-scale provocation”. Separatist official Rodion Miroshnik said rebel forces returned fire.
Ukraine disputed the claim, saying that separatists had shelled its forces, but they did not fire back.
The Ukrainian military command charged that shells hit a nursery school building in Stanytsia Luhanska, wounding two civilians, and cut power supply to half of the town.
An observer mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe is expected to offer its assessment of the situation later Thursday.
Ukrainain President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted that “the shelling of a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska by pro-Russian forces is a big provocation,” adding that the OSCE monitoring activities are “an additional deterrent”.
Asked about the flare-up of hostilities in the east, Mr Stoltenberg said the alliance was concerned “that Russia is trying to stage a pretext for an armed attack against Ukraine”.