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A rebel in east Ukraine accused Kyiv of planning an attack. The U.S. says he's lying

Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, an area controlled by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, speaks to journalists on May 5, 2021.
Alexei Alexandrov
Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, an area controlled by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, speaks to journalists on May 5, 2021.

Updated February 19, 2022 at 3:58 PM ET

A Russian-backed separatist leader in eastern Ukraine announced an emergency evacuation to Russia, alleging that Ukraine built up its military presence for an offensive in the area. But analysis of the video message revealed it was prerecorded two days earlier, and the U.S. government considered it part of a lying tactic to distract from a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In the video message posted on a messaging app on Friday, Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk rebel government, said, "As of today, Feb. 18, a mass centralized departure of the population to the Russian Federation has been organized."

Pushilin alleged a Ukrainian buildup of forces and weaponry, including U.S.-provided advanced weapons like Javelin antitank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, was the reason for the evacuation. "The armed forces of the enemy are in combat formations and are ready for the forceful capture of Donbas. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy will soon issue a decree to the military to go on the offensive and implement a plan for the invasion of the territory," he said.

Although the separatist leader said in the video it was Friday, NPR downloaded the video posted to Pushilin's Telegram messaging app account and verified, based on the metadata, that the filming date was Wednesday, raising further questions about the timing of the alleged offensive he was warning about.

The announcement came as the U.S. and NATO allies pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull his troops back from Ukraine. Russia denies planning an invasion of Ukraine and says it sent some of its troops back to their regular barracks. But the Biden administration believes Russia has massed between 169,000 and 190,000 military personnel near Ukraine and in Russian-occupied Crimea, and that Putin has made the decision to invade Ukraine at any moment.

The news also came as the 8-year-old conflict between the Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces escalated in eastern Ukraine. Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and four wounded in shelling by separatists, Reuters reported Saturday, citing Ukraine's Defense Ministry.

The U.S. considers the video a false flag

A U.S. official rejected Pushilin's claims about a planned Ukrainian military operation in comments to NPR.

"Announcements like these are further attempts to obscure through lies and disinformation that Russia is the aggressor in this conflict," a State Department official said on condition of anonymity. "This type of false flag operation is exactly what Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken highlighted in his remarks to the U.N. Security Council," the official said, referring to Blinken's address on Thursday.

"It is also cynical and cruel to use human beings as pawns to distract the world from the fact that Russia is building up its forces in preparation for an attack," the State Department official said.

Pushilin is head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, an internationally unrecognized territory carved out by Russian-backed separatists after fighting broke out with Ukrainian government forces in 2014.

Later on Friday, the White House said it believes the Russian government was responsible for recent denial-of-service attacks on Ukrainian Defense Ministry websites and banking systems.

Russia raised further alarm Saturday with ballistic and cruise missile tests. According to the Kremlin, the missiles struck various land and sea targets in tests overseen by Putin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Joanna Kakissis and Monika Evstatieva contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine; Charles Maynes from Moscow and Michele Kelemen and Jenna McLaughlin from Washington, D.C.

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Alex Leff is a digital editor on NPR's International Desk, helping oversee coverage from journalists around the world for its growing Internet audience. He was previously a senior editor at GlobalPost and PRI, where he wrote stories and edited the work of international correspondents.