‘Unprovoked’: As war looms, Russia expels US diplomat in Moscow

The move comes amid heightened tensions between Russia and the US, fueled by fears that Moscow plans to invade Ukraine.

By Associated Press

A US Embassy spokesman told a Russian news agency Thursday that Russia has expelled the deputy chief of the US mission in Moscow.

The State Department confirmed the expulsion of Bart Gorman, calling it unprovoked.

The move comes amid heightened tensions between Russia and the U.S., fueled by fears that Moscow plans to invade Ukraine.

Ukrainians defied pressure from Moscow with a national show of flag-waving unity Wednesday, while the U.S. warned that Russia had added as many as 7,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders despite Kremlin declarations that forces were being pulled back from the region.

While a Russian invasion of Ukraine did not materialize as feared, the United States and its allies maintained that the threat is still strong, with Europe’s security and economic stability in the balance.

Russia has massed more than 150,000 troops east, north and south of Ukraine, according to Western estimates.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled that he wants a peaceful path out of the crisis, and U.S. President Joe Biden promised that the U.S. would continue to give diplomacy “every chance,” but he struck a skeptical tone about Moscow’s intentions. Biden also insisted that Washington and its allies would not “sacrifice basic principles” respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Russian Defense Ministry video showed a trainload of armored vehicles moving across a bridge away from Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. It also announced that more tank units were being loaded on trains to move back to their permanent bases after training exercises.

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But at the same time, Russia continued war games near Ukraine’s borders and across its vast territory.

A senior U.S. administration official said the West detected that Russia had increased its force near Ukraine by 7,000 troops, with some arriving as recently as Wednesday, and that there had been a marked increase in false claims by Russians that the Kremlin might use as pretext for an invasion.

The official said those claims included reports of unmarked graves of civilians allegedly killed by Ukrainian forces, statements that the U.S. and Ukraine are developing biological or chemical weapons, and claims that the West is funneling in guerrillas to kill Ukrainians.

The official was not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive operations and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The official did not provide underlying evidence for the assertions.

‘This is the Russian playbook’

The U.S. and Europe are maintaining threats of harsh sanctions. ive.

“We haven’t seen a pullback,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News. “He (Putin) can pull the trigger. He can pull it today. He can pull it tomorrow. He can pull it next week. The forces are there if he wants to renew aggression against Ukraine.”

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State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. had seen “more Russian forces, not fewer.”

Asked why Russians would claim to be withdrawing when government intelligence, commercial satellite photos and social media videos showed no evidence of that, Price said: “This is the Russian playbook, to paint a picture publicly … while they do the opposite.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance also had not seen “any withdrawal of Russian forces,” as did multiple European governments. Before chairing a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels, he said: “If they really start to withdraw forces, that’s something we will welcome, but that remains to be seen.”

In the meantime, the alliance is examining this week how and when to rapidly dispatch troops and equipment to countries closest to Russia and the Black Sea region should Moscow order an invasion.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy similarly dismissed the Russian withdrawal claims.

“What is this? Rotations, withdrawal, returning back again,” he said on a visit to the southeastern city of Mariupol. “It’s too early to rejoice.”

The Ukrainian leader has repeatedly sought to project calm as well as strength during the crisis, declaring Wednesday a “Day of National Unity.”

“We are united by a desire to happily live in peace,” Zelenskyy said in an address to the nation earlier in the day. “We can defend our home only if we stay united.”

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Across the country, Ukrainians of all ages waved flags in the streets and from apartment windows.

Hundreds unfolded a 200-meter (650-foot) flag at Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium, while another was draped in the center of a shopping mall in the capital.

In the government-controlled part of Ukraine’s eastern region of Luhansk, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops since 2014, residents stretched another huge flag across a street.

“This event, this number of people united around the Ukrainian flag will show that we stand for a united Ukraine,” said resident Olena Tkachova.