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Blinken says Russia plans to manufacture justification for invasion as he urges Moscow ‘to abandon the path of war’

CNN, OLEKSIY SHATEYEV, PRACTICA LVIV, Oleksiy Shateyev/Practica Lviv

By Jeremy Herb, Veronica Stracqualursi, Kylie Atwood and Ellie Kaufman, CNN

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia was laying the groundwork to justify starting a war and preparing to launch an attack on Ukraine in the coming days, urging Moscow to change course at a tense United Nations Security Council meeting Thursday.

Blinken changed his travel plans so he could speak Thursday’s UN meeting, where the top US diplomat said he was detailing US intelligence about Russia’s attempts to fabricate a pretext for an invasion in an attempt to “influence Russia to abandon the path of war and choose a different path while there’s still time.”

“I am here today not to start a war, but to prevent one,” Blinken said.

The United States says evidence at Ukraine’s border shows that Russia is “moving towards an imminent invasion” and is not withdrawing troops, despite Moscow’s claims. The comments from Blinken and other top US officials Thursday — including President Joe Biden’s blunt warning that he believed an attack would happen “within the next several days” — marked an even greater sense of urgency from the Biden administration that Russia’s actions indicated the Kremlin was moving forward with plans for war.

“Every indication that we have is that they are prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine,” Biden told reporters as he left the White House on Thursday.

In his address to the Security Council, Blinken laid out several steps the US expected Russia to take in the coming days in an attempt to justify military action in Ukraine. He said Moscow was likely to try to generate a pretext for the war, which could be a fabricated terrorist bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of a mass grave or a staged drone strike.

“Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing or a genocide, making a mockery of a concept that we in this chamber do not take lightly,” Blinken said.

Blinken said that top Russian officials were likely to hold urgent meetings before an attack that would include Russian bombings across Ukraine and cyberattacks. Blinken said the US believes Moscow has already selected targets that Russian tanks and troops would advance on, including Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

Blinken acknowledged “that some have called into question our information,” nodding to past problems with US intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War. But he said the US would be relieved if it’s predictions are proven incorrect and Russia changes course.

“The information I presented here is validated by what we’ve seen unfolding in plain sight before our eyes for months,” Blinken said. “Remember that while Russia has repeatedly regarded our warnings as melodrama and nonsense, they’ve been steadily amassing more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders.”

US calls Russia’s expulsion of diplomat an escalatory move

As tensions continued to ratchet up, the State Department said Thursday that Russia expelled the second-most senior diplomat at the US embassy in Moscow without any justification, in what the Biden administration views as an escalatory move.

Gorman departed Moscow last week, according to a senior State Department official. He was expelled by Moscow earlier this year and given two weeks to depart.

“Russia’s actions against our deputy chief of mission, who was a key member of the embassy’s leadership team, was unprovoked,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One. “Now more than ever, it is critical that our countries have the necessary diplomatic personnel in place to facilitate communication between our governments.”addressing the UN because “this is a crucial moment.”

“The evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving towards an imminent invasion,” she said. “Our goal is to convey the gravity of the situation,” she said.

The US received a response from Russia on Thursday to the written proposals the US submitted to Russia three weeks ago, a senior State Department official said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said earlier that Moscow would send its response to the US on security guarantees, and that Moscow will also make the letter public.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Thursday also said the US government is not seeing any kind of withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine’s border, instead seeing Russia adding to its capabilities and troops “even in the last couple of days.”

During a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Austin said the US is seeing Russia move some troops closer to the border, “fly in more combat and support aircraft,” “sharpen their readiness in the Black Sea” and even “stocking up their blood supplies.”

“I was a soldier myself not that long ago, and I know firsthand that you don’t do these sort of things for no reason, and you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home, so we and our allies will stay vigilant,” he said Thursday.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier Thursday that NATO allies are concerned that Russia is attempting to “stage a pretext” for an armed attack against Ukraine.

He added that NATO has observed “false flag operations” in Ukraine by Russian intelligence officers to “provide an excuse for invading Ukraine.”

“We don’t know what will happen, but what we do know is that Russia has amassed the biggest force we have seen for decades in and around Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said.

Amid the tension between Russia and the West, US, NATO and European officials plan to converge in Munich for an annual conference to address global security issues. Russia is not planning to attend.

Vice President Kamala Harris is leading the US delegation that includes Blinken to the Munich Security Conference, and plans to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Stoltenberg during the trip.

Austin has also been traveling this week, meeting with other defense ministers of NATO to discuss Russia’s military buildup, before he heads to Poland and Lithuania to meet with the country’s leaders and US troops.

This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.

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CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Michael Conte and Christian Sierra contributed to this report.

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