NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday the Western alliance has “seen attempts” by Russia to stage a false flag operation in Ukraine, amid reports of shelling in the east of the country.
“We are concerned that Russia is trying to stage a pretext for an armed attack against Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said at a press conference. There is “still no clarity, no certainty about Russia’s intentions,” he added.
Stoltenberg’s warning came amid reports of increased violence in Ukraine’s Donbass region, where Kyiv has been fighting Russian-backed separatists for years.
Western officials have been warning Moscow may stage attacks in the contested area to justify a broader invasion. Russia currently has more than 100,000 troops encircling Ukraine and is demanding Western allies pull back from Eastern Europe — a request Western leaders have mostly rejected.
On Thursday, Ukraine and Russia accused each other of carrying out shelling attacks in Donbass. According to media reports, shells hit a school building and left two civilians injured.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson directly called the school shelling “a false flag operation designed to discredit the Ukrainians, designed to create a pretext, a spurious provocation for Russian action.” Other Western leaders did not go that far.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the attack was “a big provocation,” blaming it on the Russian-backed separatists in the area.
In Russia, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the situation was “very, very dangerous” and that “every moment runs the risk” of leading to an “outbreak of war.”
And in Brussels, top EU diplomat Josep Borrell said NATO allies have noticed the blossoming skirmishes along the border and were “very concerned,” specifically highlighting how Moscow is framing the situation.
“We’ve noticed a lot of disinformation from Russia’s side in order to create an atmosphere of alleged attacks against Russian people in this part of Ukraine,” he added.
Stoltenberg also said NATO had detected the presence of Russian intelligence officers in the Donbass region, and that he had discussed ways of dealing with the ongoing crisis, including sending more alliance troops to southeastern member countries such as Romania.
Russia has dismissed claims it will attack Ukraine as Western “hysteria.”
Cristina Gallardo contributed reporting.