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Ukraine latest: Russia expels deputy chief of US mission

February 17, 2022

Russia has asked second-most senior US diplomat in Moscow, Bart Gorman, to leave the country. Meanwhile, the UK accused the Kremlin of looking for a pretext to invade Ukraine. Follow DW for the latest.

Deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Moscow Bart Gorman
Washington is considering a response to Gorman's expulsonImage: Vladimir Gerdo/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Russian officials ordered US diplomat Bartle Gorman, who serves as the second-highest official at the US embassy in Moscow, to leave the country on Thursday amid fears that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine.

The US State Department said the move was "unprovoked" and described it as an "escalatory" step from Russia. 

"We call on Russia to end its baseless expulsions of US diplomats and staff and to work productively to rebuild our missions," a State Department spokesperson said.

"Now more than ever, it is critical that our countries have the necessary diplomatic personnel in place to facilitate communication between our governments. "

Later Thursday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Gorman was ordered to leave in response to the "unreasonable expulsion" of an unnamed "minister" at Moscow's embassy in Washington. The ministry did not say when the alleged expulsion took place. 

The US Moscow embassy said it would respond to the expulsion, according to the Interfax news agency.

Meanwhile, the UK and NATO accused Moscow of trying to create a pretext for invasion by claiming Ukraine was shelling pro-Russian rebels.

US President Joe Biden on Thursday said Washington has "every indication" Moscow is planning a "false flag" operation in Ukraine. 

US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said that evidence on the ground suggested that "Russia is moving toward an imminent invasion."

In turn, the Russian Foreign Ministry said there would be no invasion "which the United States and its allies have been announcing officially since last fall, and it is not planned."

Moscow responds to US security proposal

On Thursday, Russian officials responded to the latest proposals from Washington responding to Russia's security demands. 

According to the document cited by Russian news agency Interfax, Moscow believes Washington "did not give a constructive response" to Russian demands, which include that NATO reset their military capacities to and infrastructure in Eastern Europe to where they were in 1997.

"In the absence of readiness from the American side to negotiate hard, legally binding guarantees of our safety by the US and its allies, Russia would be forced to react, including by taking military-technical measures," the document said.

Previously, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said it was "absolutely necessary that relevant civil society groups in our two countries know" what Russia's stance is.

"I believe you will learn very quickly about how the situation will develop further," Lavrov told reporters at a press conference earlier on Thursday.

Scholz calls avoiding war a 'damned duty'

He also said that Russia will end its military drills on February 20, as scheduled. At the same time, he said that questions about the Ukraine crisis ending at that time should be addressed to Western leaders.

"This situation is not developing here, on Russian territory, it is developing in Western minds, the brains and media outlets, most of all in those of the US and the UK," Lavrov said.

Withdrawal claims dismissed

The United States and NATO have rejected Russia's claim that it has withdrawn some units from Ukraine's border.

On Thursday, Russia's Defense Ministry published a video it said showed troops and military equipment returning from Crimea to their permanent bases after drills.

The US and NATO, however, have said Russia is still building up troops around Ukraine despite Moscow's insistence it was pulling back.

"We now know it was false," a US official said, adding that as many as 7,000 Russian troops have joined the 150,000 already near the border in recent days.

"We haven't seen a pullback," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News. 

Russian President Vladimir 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," Blinken added.

Ukrainians come together on 'Day of Unity'

US-based Maxar Technologies says satellite images show Russia has pulled back some military equipment.

However, it said other hardware had arrived and that Russia still has a high level of forces and equipment near its border with Ukraine.

Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke at length in a phone call on Wednesday, saying the situation remains "extremely serious" and there was still a risk of Russian military aggression.

Roderich Kiesewetter, a leading member of Germany's opposition Christian Democrats and a member of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, told DW Thursday that there is no "real evidence" of a Russian troop withdrawal.

He added, however, that he doesn't expect any attack or something similar prior to the end of the Olympic Games.

NATO chief says tensions 'new normal in Europe'

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also dismissed suggestions that the threat on Ukraine's border had diminished.

"Moscow has made it clear that it is prepared to contest the fundamental principles that have underpinned our security for decades and to do so by using force," he said.

"I regret to say that this is the new normal in Europe."

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the EU would remain vigilant, and that Russia's claims of a withdrawal did not match the reality on the ground.

"We hear claims from Russia about pulling back troops but we have not seen any sign of de-escalation on the ground. To the contrary, the build-up continues," she told reporters in Brussels ahead of an extraordinary EU summit to discuss the crisis.

Germany's defense minister cautious over Russian claims

Berlin has yet to see "verifiable evidence" of Russia deescalating the Ukraine crisis, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht told DW.

She also said that Russia would need to recall troops that would actually be used in the event of an invasion from the Ukraine border.

Lambrecht demands evidence of Russian pullback

"One cannot assume this would be done in a few hours," she said. "We haven't seen this movement yet."

Commenting on Ukraine's efforts to join NATO and Moscow's fierce opposition to the idea, Lambrecht said NATO should not close its doors to Kyiv.

"The decision on whether to apply or not apply must be made by Ukraine," she said. "This [right] cannot be abandoned during the negotiation process."

Britain says Putin could drag out crisis

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Russian President Vladimir Putin could drag out the Ukraine crisis for months.

"We must have no illusions that Russia could drag this out much longer in a brazen ploy to spend weeks more, if not months, subverting Ukraine and challenging Western unity," Truss wrote in The Daily Telegraph newspaper.

She added there was, "no evidence the Russians are withdrawing."

Meanwhile, her colleague, Armed Forces minister James Heappey, said Britain had finished its military training activities in Ukraine.

He said the only remaining UK troops in the country are there to protect the ambassador.

Timeline of the Ukraine crisis

Ukraine denies shelling separatists in the east 

Ukraine's military has dismissed Russia-backed separatists' claims that Ukrainian forces shelled separatist-held territory on Thursday. 

"Despite the fact that our positions were fired on with prohibited weapons, including 122 mm artillery, Ukrainian troops did not open fire in response," a duty press officer of the Ukrainian Join Forces Operation told the Reuters news agency. 

Earlier, the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic told the Russian news agency RIA that Ukrainian forces used mortars, grenade launchers, and machine guns.

"Armed forces of Ukraine have crudely violated the ceasefire regime, using heavy weapons, which, according to the Minsk agreements, should be withdrawn," the report said.

The Minsk agreement was signed in 2015 to halt the fighting in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region.

The peace agreement's terms, however, were never properly implemented, and sporadic shooting has been reported in the rebel-held regions from both sides in recent years.

Later Thursday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin told the UN Security Council that Ukraine was violating the agreement. 

"Ukrainian representatives keep coming up with new excuses n implement their agreements," he said.

"Attempts to place the blame on Russia are futile and baseless" and aim at "shifting of the blame away from Ukraine," he added. 

Putin: Kyiv refuses to keep to the Minsk agreement

Russia voices 'deep concern' over alleged Donbas flareup

After pro-Russian rebels claimed Ukrainian forces were shelling their positions in the breakaway regions in east Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was "watching closely."

"This is a cause of very deep concern," he said. "We have warned more than once that excessive concentration of Ukrainian armed forces immediately next to the separation line, combined with possible provocations, could create a horrible danger."

At the same time, he said that the situation at the border between Ukraine and Russia was "stable" despite the growth of tensions in Donbas.

The Kremlin spokesman also said Moscow had no plans to discuss the alleged fighting in the rebel-controlled areas with Kyiv.

Ukraine: Life on the front line

'Time to act like adults'

German lawmaker and army lieutenant Falko Drossmann said Berlin was taking Russia's concerns seriously but did not want to talk under armed threat.

"The message is clear: Put the guns away and then we can talk about what you want, but you can't put 100,000 troops there, like thousands of troops in Belarus and then say, Now let's negotiate. That's not the way we behave. All options are on the table, and Russia knows this. So retreat the troops and then we can talk about everything."

He described the posturing around Ukraine as a "horrible game."

"And I think in our opinion, it's time now to retreat the troops and well, you know, to act like adults again," he told DW.

wmr,lo/rt (AFP, AP, Reuters)