- Vladimir Putin met with the German chancellor to explore a route to a negotiated solution.
- Putin says Russia “of course” didn’t want war and was willing to look for solutions with the West.
- The US president says we are ready to respond decisively to the Russian attack on Ukraine.
Kiev: A defiant Ukrainian leader urged citizens to celebrate a “Day of Unity” on Wednesday as Washington once again warned that Russia remains ready to launch a devastating attack.
President Volodymyr Zelensky chose the date for what he hoped would be a patriotic outpouring after US reports suggested Russian troops could strike as early as February 16.
An intense diplomatic campaign is underway to resolve the crisis that emerged when Russia deployed more than 100,000 troops to Ukraine’s borders, supported by naval reinforcements and powerful artillery and missile systems.
There was hope for a breakthrough on Tuesday when President Vladimir Putin met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to explore a route to a negotiated solution and Moscow said it had begun withdrawing some troops.
But US President Joe Biden — who has closed Washington’s embassy in Kiev and called on Americans to leave Ukraine — demanded that Russia prove its good intentions with a verifiable withdrawal.
“Analysts say they remain in a very threatening position,” Biden said in a speech on the crisis. “The United States is prepared no matter what. We are done with diplomacy,” he said.
“And we are ready to respond decisively to the Russian attack on Ukraine, which is still very possible,” he said, warning of “strong sanctions”.
Earlier, at the first announced withdrawal from troops gathered by Russia on the Ukrainian border, the Defense Ministry in Moscow said some soldiers were returning to their bases at the end of scheduled exercises.
Western leaders have accused Moscow of positioning troops ahead of a possible invasion of pro-western Ukraine, warning that any attack would be met with severe economic sanctions.
After meeting Scholz in Moscow, Putin said Russia “of course” did not want war and was willing to work with the West to find solutions.
“We are ready to continue working together. We are ready to enter the negotiation path,” Putin said at a joint press conference with Scholz.
In response, Scholz said: “In any case, to hear that we are now hearing that some troops are being withdrawn is a good sign.”
“For Europeans, it is clear that lasting security cannot be achieved against Russia, but only with Russia.”
Moscow has released few details about the withdrawal of the troops.
In Brussels, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said that while there was no “sign of de-escalation on the ground” yet, there were “grounds for cautious optimism”.
The crisis — the worst between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War — peaked this week, with US officials warning of a large-scale invasion — perhaps on Wednesday.
Zelensky responded sarcastically to the warning, proclaiming Wednesday “Day of Unity.”
“Serious external and internal challenges have arisen, which require responsibility, trust and concrete actions from me and from all of us,” he said.
“But our state today is stronger than ever,” he vowed.
On Tuesday, Ukraine said the websites of the defense ministry and the country’s armed forces, as well as two banks, had been hit by a cyber attack that could be of Russian origin.
“It cannot be ruled out that the aggressor will resort to dirty tricks,” the Ukrainian communications watchdog said, referring to Russia.
In a separate move likely to infuriate Kiev, Russian lawmakers voted Tuesday to urge Putin to recognize two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as “sovereign and independent states.”
This would allow Russia to abandon the Minsk accords peace plan for eastern Ukraine and potentially deploy Russian troops, giving Putin a strong hand to play in future negotiations with Kiev.
The European Union “firmly” condemned such a move, saying it would violate the Minsk agreements Moscow had signed.
Russia has repeatedly blamed the West for the crisis in Ukraine, saying that the United States and Western Europe are ignoring Russia’s legitimate security concerns.
The Kremlin insists that NATO must give guarantees that Ukraine will never be admitted as a member and that the alliance will reduce its presence in several Eastern European and ex-Soviet countries.
Russia controls all of the Crimean peninsula it captured from Ukraine in 2014 and is supporting separatist forces that have taken over parts of eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has claimed more than 14,000 lives.