- The US and other Western states warn that war in Ukraine could ignite at any moment.
- Washington orders most of its embassy staff to leave Ukraine.
- Moscow has repeatedly questioned the Washington version of events.
WASHINGTON/MOSCOW: US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin will speak on Saturday as the United States and other Western countries warned that war could ignite in Ukraine any moment.
Washington ordered most of its embassy staff to leave Ukraine on Saturday, adding this week to its appeal for individuals to leave the country as soon as possible.
In addition, about 150 Florida National Guard troops who are in Ukraine to help train Ukrainian troops are leaving the country as the threat of Russian invasion mounts, two US officials told Reuters.
Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine and a wave of military activity have fueled fears that Russia could invade. Russia denies having such plans.
Putin requested that the phone call between the leaders be held on Monday, a White House official said, but Biden wanted it earlier as Washington became more and more alive about a possible attack on Ukraine.
Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands joined countries on Saturday urging their citizens to leave Ukraine. Washington said Friday that a Russian invasion, including a possible airstrike, could take place at any time.
Moscow has repeatedly disputed Washington’s version, saying it has gathered more than 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border to maintain its own security against aggression by NATO allies.
Russia, which accused Western countries of spreading lies, said it had decided to “optimize” its diplomatic workforce in Ukraine, fearing “provocations” by Kiev or another party.
Moscow did not say whether that meant a reduction in staff numbers, but said the embassy and consulates in Ukraine continued to perform their key functions.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington will impose swift economic sanctions if Moscow invades.
“I remain hopeful that he will not choose the path of renewed aggression and that he will choose the path of diplomacy and dialogue,” Blinken told reporters after meeting Pacific leaders in Fiji. “But if he doesn’t, we’re prepared.”
In a later telephone conversation with Blinken, top Russian diplomat Sergei Lavrov accused the United States and its allies of conducting a “propaganda campaign” about Russian aggression against Ukraine, Russia’s foreign ministry said.
Russian Defense Secretary Sergei Shoigu and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin also spoke by phone on Saturday, according to Interfax news agency and the Pentagon.
Putin, who is vying for influence in post-Cold War Europe, is asking for security guarantees from Biden to block Kiev’s accession to NATO and the deployment of missiles near Russia’s borders.
Washington views many of the proposals as non-starters, but has urged the Kremlin to discuss them with Washington and its European allies.
Still, Biden has long believed that one-on-one engagement with Putin could be the best chance for a solution. Two December talks between Biden and Putin did not yield any breakthroughs, but set the stage for diplomacy between their aides. The two leaders have not spoken to each other since then and diplomats from both sides are struggling to reach an agreement.
Four-way talks in Berlin between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France yielded no results on Thursday.
Putin also plans to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday, according to Russia’s TASS news agency.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Saturday that the crisis between Russia and Ukraine was escalating, but Germany was doing everything it could to find a diplomatic solution.
to combine forces
Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Friday that US intelligence believes a swift attack on Kiev is possible and Putin could order an invasion before the Winter Olympics in China end on February 20. He added that it remains unclear whether such an attack has been ordered.
He said the Russians had gathered enough troops at the border to invade the country and that they could launch an aerial bombardment.
Russia’s deputy UN ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy accused Washington of mounting a “panic campaign”.
Ukrainian officials have tried to undermine Washington’s assessment that an invasion could be imminent.
Several thousand Ukrainians gathered in Kiev on Saturday to show unity amid fears of invasion, as the Ukrainian leader told people not to panic and backed off against what he said were a plethora of bleak war predictions spread in the media. reported.
Still, Washington planned to send an additional 3,000 troops to Poland, Ukraine’s western neighbor, in the coming days to try to reassure NATO allies, four US officials told Reuters. In addition to the 8500, they are already ready to be deployed to Europe if necessary.
Meanwhile, Russian troops gathered north, south and east of Ukraine.
More than 30 ships of Russia’s Black Sea fleet have begun training exercises near the Crimean peninsula as part of wider naval exercises, the RIA news agency reported on Saturday.
Prior to talks with Putin, Biden spoke about the crisis with leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Poland and Romania, as well as NATO and EU leaders. As tensions have risen in recent weeks, Washington has been trying to ensure that its allies would react unanimously if Russia invaded.