MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden are due to hold a high-stakes phone call on Saturday as tensions around a possible imminent invasion of Ukraine have escalated sharply and the United States announced their intention to evacuate their embassy in the Ukrainian capital.
Before speaking to Biden, Putin must have a call with French President Emmanuel Macron, who met him in Moscow earlier in the week to try to resolve the crisis.
Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border and sent troops to drills in neighboring Belarus, but vehemently denies plans to launch an offensive against Ukraine.
However, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Saturday that the country had “optimised” the staffing of its embassy in Kyiv, but said the move responded to concerns about possible military actions by the Ukrainian side.
“We conclude that our American and British colleagues are apparently aware of certain military actions being prepared in Ukraine that could significantly complicate the security situation,” she said. “In this situation, fearing possible provocations from the Kiev regime or third countries, we actually decided to somewhat optimize the personnel of Russian foreign missions in Ukraine.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone on Saturday. Lavrov told Blinken that “the propaganda campaign launched by the United States and its allies on ‘Russian aggression’ against Ukraine pursues provocative goals.”
Britain told its citizens on Saturday to leave Ukraine. Armed Forces Minister James Heappey told the BBC that British troops training the Ukrainian army would also leave the country. Germany and the Netherlands have also called on their citizens to leave as soon as possible.
Adding to the sense of crisis, the Pentagon ordered the dispatch of 3,000 additional American troops to Poland to reassure the allies.
Biden has said the US military will not go to war in Ukraine, but he has promised tough economic sanctions against Moscow, along with international allies.
The timing of possible Russian military action remains a key question.
The United States has collected intelligence that Russia considers Wednesday a target date, according to a U.S. official familiar with the findings. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and only did so on condition of anonymity, did not say how definitive the information was. The White House has publicly stressed that the United States does not know for sure whether Putin is engaged in the invasion.
However, US officials again said Russia’s buildup of air, land and sea offensive firepower near Ukraine had reached the point where it could invade on short notice.
A State Department travel advisory said on Saturday that most US embassy employees in Kiev have been ordered to leave and other US citizens are also expected to leave the country.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said on Saturday “it is extremely important to remain calm, to consolidate in the country and to avoid actions that undermine stability and sow panic”. He added that the armed forces “continuously monitor the development of the situation and are ready to repel any attack on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine”.
Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Americans shouldn’t expect the US military to rescue them in case air and rail travel is disrupted after a Russian invasion.
Several NATO allies, including Britain, Canada, Norway and Denmark, are also asking their citizens to leave Ukraine, as is New Zealand, a non-NATO ally.
Sullivan said Russian military action could begin with missile and air attacks, followed by a ground offensive.
“Yes, this is an urgent message because we are in an urgent situation,” he told reporters at the White House.
“Russia has all the forces it needs to take major military action,” Sullivan said, adding that “Russia could choose, at very short notice, to begin major military action against Ukraine.” He said the scale of such an invasion could range from a limited incursion to a strike on Kyiv, the capital.
Russia has mocked the American discourse on urgency.
“The White House hysteria is more telling than ever,” Russian spokeswoman Zakharova said. “The Anglo-Saxons need a war. At all costs. Provocations, misinformation and threats are a preferred method of solving their own problems.
In addition to the more than 100,000 ground troops that US officials say Russia has mustered along Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders, the Russians have deployed missile, air, naval and special operations forces, as well as supplies to support a war. This week, Russia moved six amphibious assault ships into the Black Sea, increasing its ability to land marines on the coast.
Sullivan’s stern warning accelerated the timeline for a possible invasion, which many analysts thought unlikely before the end of the Winter Olympics in China on Feb. 20. prompted the administration to warn that war could start at any time.
“We can’t determine the day at this point, and we can’t determine the time, but it’s a very, very distinct possibility,” Sullivan said.
Biden has said US troops will not enter Ukraine to challenge any Russian invasion, but he has bolstered the US military presence in Europe to reassure allies on NATO’s eastern flank. On Friday, the Pentagon said Biden had sent 3,000 more troops to Poland, on top of the 1,700 who are going there. The US military is also transferring 1,000 troops from Germany to Romania, which, like Poland, shares a border with Ukraine.
Biden spoke with a number of European leaders on Friday to underscore concerns raised by U.S. intelligence services about a potential imminent Russian invasion.
Russia demands that the West keep Ukraine and other former Soviet countries out of NATO. It also wants NATO to refrain from deploying weapons near its border and roll back alliance forces from Eastern Europe – demands the West flatly rejects.
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in bitter conflict since 2014, when Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin leader was ousted from office by a popular uprising. Moscow responded by annexing the Crimean peninsula and then backing a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has killed more than 14,000 people.
A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany stopped large-scale battles, but regular skirmishes have continued and efforts to reach a political settlement have stalled.
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