U.S. President Joe Biden said that he was confident that Russian President Vladimir Putin had made the decision to further invade Ukraine.
“We have reasons to believe that Russian forces are planning to attack Ukraine in the coming week, in the coming days,” Biden said during a press briefing on Feb. 18. “We believe they will target Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.”
“I'm convinced that (Putin) has made the decision," he said.
When a journalist asked whether he meant that Putin decided to invade Ukraine, Biden confirmed it.
At the same time, he added, diplomacy was not off the table until the invasion happened.
If Putin invades Ukraine before the scheduled meeting of Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Feb. 24, it would mean that Russia has shut the door on diplomacy, Biden said.
Biden's remarks come amid the growing escalation in eastern Ukraine, where the Russian-led militants have intensified artillery strikes on the Ukrainian forces' positions while also seemingly trying to frame Kyiv for the escalation.
On Feb. 17, Russian-led militants began shelling Ukrainian villages near the front line in eastern Donbas. Over 120 incidents of shelling were recorded within two days, according to the Ukrainian forces.
The heaviest impact was seen in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Stanytsya Luhanska just next to Luhansk, a regional capital occupied by Russia since 2014.
A 122-millimeter shell hit a local kindergarten, leaving three staff members with a concussion. In the town of Vrubivka in Luhansk Oblast, another shell landed in a local schoolyard.
Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said that civilians were the main targets of Russian attacks, calling such actions “a war crime.”
On Feb. 18, the Russian-led proxies began bolstering panic in the occupied regions, accusing Ukraine of preparing a military offensive.
Denis Pushilin, a leader of the Kremlin’s proxies stationed in occupied Donetsk, released a video address calling for civilians to evacuate to Russia, citing Ukraine’s “planned attack” without any evidence.
An hour later the Russian-controlled head of the Luhansk-based militant group published a similar video.
Both video announcements calling for evacuation were actually recorded on Feb. 16, according to the date on the uploaded video files.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has claimed the shelling of a kindergarten was a “false-flag operation” aimed at discrediting the Ukrainian government.
Biden also addressed the Russia-backed militants' accusations against Ukraine during his Feb. 18 briefing.
"We see more and more disinformation being pushed out to the Russian public, including Russian-backed separatists claiming Ukraine was planning to launch a massive attack in the Donbas," he said. "There is simply no evidence and it defies basic logic to believe that Ukrainians would choose this moment with over 150,000 troops on its borders to escalate a year-long conflict."
“All this is consistent with the playbook that Russia has used before — to set up a false justification to act against Ukraine,” Biden added.
Amid the announcements of Kremlin-led militants, Russian propaganda increased its saber-rattling, publishing the videos of Donbas evacuations and an alleged video of a gas pipeline set on fire in Luhansk Oblast.
Earlier on Feb. 18, Ukraine's intelligence said that Russians were preparing to blow up infrastructure objects in the occupied territories to frame Ukraine for it.
On the evening of Feb. 18, the Russia-led proxies claimed that they have already evacuated 3,400 people and sought to move out 500,000-700,000 people out of the Russian-occupied Donbas into Russia’s neighboring Rostov region.
Russia's state media showed videos of groups of children allegedly being taken across the border into Russia, as well as traffic jams on the way to the Russian border. According to Google Maps, certain parts of the highway leading from Donetsk to the Russian border had heavy traffic as of 1 a.m. of Feb. 19.
Residents have reported that an evacuation was ongoing, yet independent journalists have so far not been able to confirm the extent of the evacuation.
During the day, Russian state-owned media outlets have been reporting explosions in Donetsk, which were blamed on a “Ukrainian offensive.”
Valery Zaluzhny, head of the Ukrainian army, on Feb. 18 called on residents of Russian-occupied regions not to believe the Kremlin proxies’ statements about Ukraine’s supposed invasion plans.
“I repeat once again — Ukraine doesn’t plan and doesn’t conduct offensive operations in eastern Ukraine,” he said.
According to the U.S., Russia has increased its military presence near Ukrainian frontiers to an all-time high.
“We assess that Russia probably has massed between 169,000-190,000 personnel in and near Ukraine as compared with about 100,000 on Jan. 30,” said Michael Carpenter, U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE.
During his briefing, Biden said there were 150,000 troops encircling Ukraine.