Western nations warn shelling in Ukraine could provide false pretext for Russian invasion

President Biden said Thursday that war in Ukraine could come within days, as artillery hit a kindergarten in eastern Ukraine and a tense standoff between the West and Russia came to a point in the United Nations Security Council. More than 150,000 Russian troops remain massed on the borders of Ukraine. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    War in Ukraine could come within days, President Biden said today, as artillery that Ukraine blamed on Russian-backed separatists hit a kindergarten in the eastern part of the country, and as a tense standoff between the West and Russia came to a point in the United Nations Security Council.

    More than 150,000 Russian troops remain massed tonight on the borders of Ukraine.

    Nick Schifrin again starts our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Near the line of contact between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists, this morning, a shell pierced the wall of a kindergarten classroom that, on Tuesday, had been full of 5-year-olds and their teachers.

    This morning, they fled from what the Ukrainian government called separatist shelling. The U.S. fears a Russian attack like this could be the first shot fired in a wider war that's about to start.

  • President Joe Biden:

    We have reason to believe that they are engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in.

  • Question:

    Is your sense that this is going to happen now?

  • President Joe Biden:

    Yes. Not my sense is, it will happen within the next several days.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a last-minute visit to New York to reveal new intelligence about a possible Russian pretext.

    Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State: It could be a fabricated, so-called terrorist bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of a mass grave, a staged drone strike against civilians, or a fake, even a real attack using chemical weapons. Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing or a genocide.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Indeed, ahead of the meeting, Russia delivered to the Security Council what it called a joint project with the news channel R.T. about — quote — "war crimes" in Eastern Ukraine.

    R.T., formerly known as Russia Today, has already been publishing stories about British-trained — quote — "saboteurs" planning attacks, and American mercenaries preparing a — quote — "provocation" using chemical weapons.

    Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Vershinin blamed today's violence on Ukraine.

  • Sergey Vershinin, Russian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister (through translator):

    People for many years have been subject to shelling by the Ukrainian army, and that has continued today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But U.S. officials say it's the Russian army that continues shelling in massive exercises in Belarus. Russia says it's withdrawing some troops, but senior U.S. officials say the number of Russian troops increased by 7,000, and they are poised for invasion.

    British intelligence even tweeted what it called Russia's possible axis of invasion on seven fronts.

    Colin Powell, Former U.S. Secretary of State: Saddam Hussein and his regime have made no effort, no effort.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And 19 years after one of Blinken's predecessors gave a speech based on false intelligence, Blinken embraced the comparison.

  • Antony Blinken:

    I'm mindful that some have called into question our information, recalling previous instances where intelligence ultimately did not bear out. But let me be clear. I am here today not to start a war, but to prevent one.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Preventing war requires diplomacy. In Moscow, U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan visited the Foreign Ministry to receive a new Russian document that said, "We welcome the readiness of the United States for appropriate consultations," a reference to U.S. offers to discuss arms control, military exercises, and missile deployments.

    But the document added: "This work cannot replace the settlement of key problems." That's a reference to Russian demands already rejected, that NATO refrain from any further enlargement, including Ukraine, roll back to before NATO expanded in the late 1990s to former Soviet satellites and states, and pledge not to deploy missiles near Russia's borders.

    Moscow also acknowledged today that, last week, it kicked out deputy U.S. Chief of Mission Bart Gorman, the embassy's number two. But, this morning, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said there's still room for diplomacy.

  • Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister (through translator):

    We will continue talks on all aspects of our proposals.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, for more, we're joined by Victoria Nuland, the undersecretary of state for political affairs.

    Victoria Nuland, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    President Biden today said that Russia could launch war — quote — "within the next several days."

    What are you seeing that leads to that conclusion?

    Victoria Nuland, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs: Nick, as my secretary said at the United Nations today, we are seeing Russian forces not moving back from the front, but, in fact, moving forward, and more forces coming in every day.

    We're seeing them moving into ready positions. We are seeing Spetsnaz units at the ready. We're seeing large amounts of aviation, large amounts of naval power surrounding Ukraine. And we are starting to see the kinds of pretexts that the secretary was warning about today, including the bombing of the kindergarten, unbelievable, by Russia-backed separatists today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On the number of pretexts that the secretary of state listed that we heard in our piece, one caught our eye. He said that Russia could use chemical weapons as a pretext for war.

    What is your evidence for that?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Well, these are the kinds of things that Russia is predicting that the Ukrainians would do. And this is a tried-and-true Russia technique, accuse the other guy of doing exactly what you, yourself, are planning to do.

    Now, whether they would actually be as brutal as to use chemical weapons or just make it look like the chemical weapons had been used, that is one of the pretexts that we want to warn the world about, because it is in their playbook, and we could see it in the next couple of days.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, certainly, as I pointed out, R.T. has been talking about chemical weapons.

    But I think you have gotten this question before, and it is important to ask. Why should we trust U.S. intelligence when, of course, it has been wrong in the past? And, as you know, many Russian-Ukrainian experts who I talk to doubt that Putin would benefit or even be able to occupy Ukraine and conduct a regime change.

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Well, Nick, as you know, we have been warning about these Russian military plans since November.

    We started warning when there were 50,000 troops around Ukraine's borders. And then our warnings got stronger when there were 100,000 troops around Ukraine's borders. And then, when they moved 30,000 troops through Belarus, we warned again. And now we're up to 150,000 troops, including very high-tech weapons, and, as I said, Spetsnaz forces.

    So we are depending, obviously, on our intelligence, but it is being borne out by what we're seeing on the ground, unfortunately.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Spetsnaz, of course, the Russian special operations forces that we have seen in Ukraine in the past.

    And just to put a point on this, of course, we do hear that the Russians say that they're going to end exercises in the Black Sea and in Belarus in the next few days. Is that the critical moment? Is that what you're fearing, that those Russian troops won't actually end those exercises, and instead will be used for an invasion?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Absolutely, Nick.

    As Secretary Blinken said today, they have everything in theater ready to go. And if they want to prove to the world that that is not their intention, they can see unequivocally that they have no intention of invading Ukraine, and they can begin pulling back those forces, those aircraft, those ships, and come to the diplomatic table.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On the diplomatic table, are there off-ramps?

    Russia delivered a letter today. We reported a little bit about what it said. Is it, do you believe, an opening for diplomacy? And has Foreign Minister Lavrov agreed to meet Secretary Blinken, as Blinken invited him to, next week?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    We have not yet had a response to Secretary Blinken's offer of this morning to Secretary Lavrov, to Minister Lavrov, to meet anywhere of his choosing in Europe next week. We hope he will accept that.

    There is grounds, both in the U.S. proposal and in the Russian proposal, for us to work seriously on arms control, on military deconfliction, on restraints. The Russians, in fact, in their document today, said that they wanted to talk about some of these things, particularly intermediate-range nuclear weapons and short-range nuclear weapons and missile defenses.

    So, let's come to the diplomatic table and talk. And let's pull back forces from Ukraine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's hard to read some of these messages. They are mixed.

    While the letter did say that they wanted to talk about those topics, at the same time, it said that the U.S. had not responded to positively the core demand about NATO's future and Ukraine's future. So, bottom line, do you believe that that letter is an opening to diplomacy or not?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Nick, I believe that the United States and our allies have to take every opening we possibly can to try to get the Russians to the table and to try to avert a war that will be incredibly bloody for Ukraine, for Russia, incredibly dangerous for Europe, for peace and security around the world, and would really draw new dividing lines like we haven't seen since I was young and you were even younger.

    So, we have to try to get Russia back to the diplomatic table. But, as you said at the beginning of your segment here, a lot of Russia's unacceptable demands remain. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try talking and try closing the gaps. But they have to de-escalate if they're serious about diplomacy, rather than war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Washington especially and London behind it have been very aggressive at releasing Russian military assessments, Russian military plans.

    Do you believe that can make Putin sweat, change his calculus? Because there's not a lot of history of Putin changing his behavior after being called out.

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Well, as you know, Nick, Putin loves the element of surprise. That's what he was able to achieve when he jumped into Crimea in 2014 and some of his other moves the last time we saw him escalate in Ukraine.

    So what we have tried to do here is not only remove from his toolkit the element of surprise, make sure that the Ukrainians and our allies and partners are ready, but also that the international community sees this bag of dirty tricks that he and the Kremlin have used so often and recognizes them.

    Today's example was a prime one, where, when the kindergarten was hit with those awful pictures, definitely, based on the trajectory of the missiles, by Russian proxies in the Donbass, they were unable to succeed in gaining traction that this came from the Ukrainians because we had prepared people.

    So we will continue to do that. And, unfortunately, we believe that our intelligence is being borne out here. But there is still time for diplomacy. That is our message today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Victoria Nuland, thank you very much.

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Thank you, Nick.

Listen to this Segment