U.S. President Joe Biden said Thursday there is a "very high" likelihood that Russia will invade Ukraine in the next several days.
"We have reason to believe that they are engaged in a false-flag operation to have an excuse to go in," Biden told reporters at the White House. "Every indication we have is they're prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine."
"My sense is it will happen within the next several days," he said.
Biden said, however, he still believes it is possible to find a diplomatic solution that would ease Russia's concerns about NATO's missiles and military training exercises in eastern Europe. The Western allies reject Russia's main demand that NATO rule out the possibility of granting membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet states.
The White House said Biden will speak with Transatlantic leaders on a phone call Friday about Russia's buildup of military troops on the border of Ukraine and the continued efforts of the U.S. to pursue deterrence and diplomacy.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken later echoed Biden, telling the U.N. Security Council that the world can expect to see Russia attack Ukraine within days and that intelligence information indicates it could be preceded by a fabricated pretext.
“This could be a violent event that Russia will blame on Ukraine, or an outrageous accusation that Russia will level against the Ukrainian government,” Blinken said. “We don’t know exactly the form it will take.”
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Blinken “noted in his remarks at the UN Security Council today that, because we believe the only responsible way to resolve this crisis is through diplomacy and dialogue, he had proposed to meet ((Russian)) Foreign Minister Lavrov in Europe next week.”
Price said, “The Russians have responded with proposed dates for late next week, which we are accepting, provided there is no further Russian invasion of Ukraine. If they do invade in the coming days, it will make clear they were never serious about diplomacy. We will continue to coordinate with our Allies and partners and push for further engagements with Russia through the NATO-Russia Council and OSCE.”
Meanwhile, Moscow expelled the No. 2-ranking U.S. diplomat from the American embassy in the Russian capital.
The U.S. State Department said the expulsion of Bart Gorman, its deputy chief of mission in Moscow, "was unprovoked, and we consider this an escalatory step and are considering our response."
In Brussels, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Russia is continuing to amass its forces along Ukraine's borders and that he sees no indication that Moscow is sending troops home as it claims.
"We don't see that," the Pentagon chief said at a meeting of NATO defense ministers. "Quite the contrary, we see them add to the more than 150,000 troops they already have arrayed along that border. ... We even see them stocking up their blood supplies."
"I know firsthand that you don't do these sorts of things for no reason, and you certainly don't do them if you're getting ready to pack up and go home," Austin said. U.S. officials say Moscow has sent another 7,000 troops to the Ukraine border in recent days.
Austin added, "There is no reason, of course, that it should ever come to this. Just like there is no reason for Russia to again invade Ukraine" after annexing Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
The Kremlin contends it is withdrawing troops from near the Ukraine border but said it will take time to do so.
Austin said that if Russian President Vladimir Putin "chooses war" instead of a diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine crisis, "it will be Mr. Putin who will bear the responsibility for the suffering and the immense sacrifice that ensues."
Austin said that "a peaceful outcome that respects Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity represents the best outcome for Ukraine, to be sure, but also for Russia and for the Russian people."
Russia's intentions could become clearer later Thursday after the United States and its allies analyze a document that the Kremlin delivered to U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan in Moscow.
It is Russia's written response to the recent U.S. and NATO offer to negotiate over their missile deployment and troop exercises in Europe while rejecting Russia's demands related to possible Ukrainian membership in NATO.
The U.S. is also watching the conflict between Russian separatists and Kyiv's forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where 14,000 people have been killed in the past eight years.
On Thursday, Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels traded accusations of firing across a cease-fire line. Austin said reports of the shelling were "certainly troubling. We've said for some time that the Russians might do something like this in order to justify a military conflict, so we'll be watching very closely."
Struck during the shelling was a kindergarten classroom in Stanytsia Luhanska, in pro-Ukrainian territory in Donbas.
Separatists in the Luhansk region blamed the Ukrainian government for the shelling, adding that rebel forces returned fire, according to The Associated Press.
However, Ukraine disputed the claim, saying separatists had shelled its forces, but they didn't fire back. The Ukrainian military command said the shelling wounded two teachers and cut power to half the town, according to media reports.
Yasar Halit Cevik, the head of the monitoring mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told the U.N Security Council there had been 500 explosions along the contact line from Wednesday evening to Thursday. He said that tensions then appeared to ease, with fewer blasts reported.
The U.S. embassy in Ukraine said in a tweet, "The aggressor in Donbas is clear – Russia."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was deeply concerned about the flare-up in violence. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called for a condemnation of what he called a "severe violation of Minsk agreements by Russia amid an already tense security situation." The U.S. embassy also made similar comments in another tweet.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, "We are concerned that Russia is trying to stage a pretext for an armed attack against Ukraine."
He said that "NATO's door remains open" to negotiations, but the Western alliance cannot accept when "big powers intimidate, bully or dictate others." He invited Russia to "engage in good faith" over the Ukraine crisis.
VOA's Nike Ching and Margaret Besheer contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, The New York Times, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.