Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is seen as he visits the border troops in Donetsk, Ukraine on February 17, 2022.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is seen as he visits the border troops in Donetsk, Ukraine on February 17, 2022. Ukrainian Presidency / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Putin has ‘Made the Decision’ to Attack Ukraine, Biden Says

Amid shelling, Ukrainian, U.S., and allied leaders derided Moscow over a series of highly unconvincing PR stunts.

President Joe Biden said Friday that he is convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine. 

"As of this moment, I am convinced he has made the decision. We have reason to believe that," Biden said at the White House. “We believe that they will target Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.” The president cited U.S. intelligence but providing no details to support his assertion. Biden said diplomacy remains open to prevent war until Putin actually begins an attack. 

Russia and Russia-backed forces in Ukraine appeared to have launched a coordinated propaganda and information warfare campaign on Friday that U.S. and allied officials said they fear may be a pretext for an imminent invasion of Russian forces into Ukraine. 

Russian proxy forces in Eastern Ukraine made new, unverified claims that the Ukrainian government was about to stage an unprovoked attack. They also announced an “evacuation”  of 700,000 people in Russian-occupied Ukraine territory under the pretext of a looming Ukrainian invasion.

"There is simply no evidence to these assertions and it defies basic logic,” to claim Ukraine is trying to escalate or commit genocide, Biden said. "We have reason to believe" Russia is preparing to attack "within days."

Biden said he is unsure why Putin is reportedly planning to oversee Russia’s nuclear force exercises this weekend. “I do not think he is remotely contemplating using nuclear weapons,” Biden said, but wondered if it may be cover for Russia’s recent claims of military exercises or just to show force. “It’s hard to read his mind.” 

Ukrainian officials earlier had refuted the claims, saying they had no intention of staging an attack against Russian forces in Ukraine. “We categorically refute Russian disinformation reports on Ukraine’s alleged offensive operations or acts of sabotage in chemical production facilities. Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas. We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only” Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, said on Twitter.

The foreign ministers of France and Germany, Jean-Yves Le Drian and Annalena Baerbock, issued a rare joint statement on Friday saying, “We do not see any grounds for these allegations and urge Russia to use its influence over the self-proclaimed republics to encourage restraint and contribute to de-escalation. We are concerned that staged incidents could be misused as a pretext for possible military escalation.”

Ukrainian military intelligence issued a statement warning that Russian forces were hiding explosives in several buildings in Donetsk, as reports of shelling and civilian casualties in the region surfaced. 

Overnight, artillery fell on a kindergarten in a village in Luhansk and observers recorded a major escalation in ceasefire violations. 

Analysts said Russia-aligned groups’ claims that Ukraine was about to attack appeared to be previously recorded messages. Denis Pushilin, who heads the Russian proxy group the Donetsk People’s Republic, released a video over Telegram urging women, children, and the elderly to relocate to Russia and claiming that Ukraine was about to launch a major attack on the region. Leonid Pasichnyk, head of the Luhansk People’s Republic, did the same. 

But Aric Toler, a member of the open source intelligence group Bellingcat, pointed out that the metadata from both the Telegram messages showed that the videos were actually recorded two days earlier, on Feb 16. Journalists on the ground reported that residents were confused by the separatist leaders’ claims , doubted the justification for air raid sirens, and weren’t sure if the evacuation was real. 

Russian media carried footage of the ‘evacuations’ but Western journalists, such as Buzzfeed’s Christopher Miller, were highly-skeptical and said unsolicited footage provided by the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic appeared to be staged. 

Also on Friday, White House officials attributed the disruptive denial of service attacks that hit Ukrainian banks and defense entities this week to Russia. The attacks emanated from Russian military sources "transmitting high volumes of communication to Ukraine based IP addresses and domains," Anne Neuberger, deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology, told reporters at the White House.

Friday’s events occurred after weeks of warnings from U.S. government officials that Russia would likely stage a false attack to justify an attack on Ukraine in the days ahead. 

Dmitri Alapovitch, one of the founders of cybersecurity company Crowdstrike and currently the head of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, said on Twitter: “It’s truly amazing that Russia is appearing to try to convince everyone that Ukrainians decided to commit ‘genocide’ in the Donbas at the very moment that Russia has built the largest invasion force in Europe in 50+ years on its borders. They waited 8 years to start doing it NOW!”

Kevin Baron contributed to this report.