Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden made a high-stakes phone call on Saturday, as the tense world watched and feared the invasion of Ukraine could begin within days.
Before speaking to Biden, Putin held a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, whom he met in Moscow earlier in the week to try to resolve the biggest security crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War. The Kremlin’s summary of the call indicated that little progress had been made toward calming tensions.
In a sign that US officials are preparing for a worst-case scenario, the US has announced plans to evacuate its embassy in the Ukrainian capital.Britain joined other European countries in urging their citizens to leave Ukraine.
Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border and sent troops to conduct exercises in neighboring Belarus, but denies it intends to launch an attack on Ukraine.
The timing of any potential Russian military action remained a major question.
The United States picked up intelligence that Russia considers Wednesday as a target date, according to a US official familiar with the findings. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and did so on condition of anonymity, did not say how accurate the intelligence was. The White House has publicly asserted that the United States does not know for sure whether Putin was committed to the invasion.
However, US officials said again that Russia’s build-up of firepower near Ukraine had reached the point where it could invade on short notice.
The Kremlin’s statement about the Putin-Macron phone call referred to “provocative speculation about” an “alleged” Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia has consistently denied that it is planning military action against its neighbor.
Putin also complained in the call that the United States and NATO had not responded satisfactorily to Russian demands to prevent Ukraine from joining the military alliance and that NATO was withdrawing its forces from Eastern Europe.
The White House said the closely watched call between Biden and Putin began at 11:04 a.m. EDT. Biden took the call from Camp David.
Biden said the US military would not go to war in Ukraine, but promised to impose severe economic sanctions on Moscow, in coordination with international allies.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said he told his Russian counterpart on Saturday that “further Russian aggression will be met with a firm, broad, and united transatlantic response.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tried to show calm while observing Saturday’s military exercises near Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
“We are not afraid, we are without panic, everything is under control,” he said.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu also held phone talks on Saturday.
British forces who were training the Ukrainian army also planned to leave the country. Germany, the Netherlands and Italy called on their citizens to leave as soon as possible.
The US State Department said in its travel advisory Saturday that most US staff at the Kiev embassy have been ordered to leave and other US citizens should leave the country as well.
More tensions arose between the United States and Russia on Saturday when the Defense Department summoned the military attache of the US embassy after it said the Navy had spotted a US submarine in Russian waters near the Kuril Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The ministry said the submarine refused orders to leave but departed after the navy used unspecified “appropriate means”.
Adding to the sense of crisis, the Pentagon ordered an additional 3,000 American troops to be sent to Poland to reassure the allies.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Americans in Ukraine should not expect the U.S. military to rescue them if air and rail transportation was disrupted after the Russian invasion.
Several NATO allies, including Britain, Canada, Norway and Denmark, have also asked their citizens to leave Ukraine, as has non-NATO ally New Zealand.
Sullivan said Russian military action could begin with missile and air attacks, followed by a ground offensive.
“Russia has all the forces it needs to take a major military action,” Sullivan said, adding that “Russia could choose, in a very short time, to start a major military action against Ukraine.” He said the scale of such an invasion could range from a limited incursion to a strike on Kiev, the capital.
Russia scoffed at the American talk of urgency.
“The hysteria in the White House is more indicative than ever,” said Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry. The Anglo-Saxons need a war. At any price. Provocations, disinformation and threats are the preferred way to solve their problems.”
Zakharova said her country has “improved” the staffing of its embassy in Kiev in response to concerns about possible military operations from the Ukrainian side.
In addition to the more than 100,000 ground troops, US officials say, that Russia has amassed along Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders, the Russians have deployed missile, air, naval and special operations forces, as well as supplies to continue the war. This week, Russia moved six amphibious assault ships into the Black Sea, increasing its ability to land Marines on the coast.
Sullivan’s stark warning has speeded up the projected timeframe for a possible invasion, which many analysts thought was unlikely until after the Winter Olympics in China ended on February 20. The combination of the increase in Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders and unspecified intelligence indications led the administration to warn that war could start at any time, Sullivan said.
“We can’t pinpoint the day at this point, and we can’t pinpoint the hour, but that’s a very clear possibility,” Sullivan said.
Biden has beefed up the US military presence in Europe as a reassurance to allies on NATO’s eastern flank. An additional 3,000 soldiers ordered to enter Poland came in addition to 1,700 soldiers on their way there. The US military is also moving 1,000 soldiers from Germany to Romania, which like Poland shares a border with Ukraine.
Russia demands the West to keep the former Soviet Union out of NATO. It also wants NATO to refrain from deploying weapons near its borders and to push back coalition forces from Eastern Europe – demands that the West has flatly rejected.
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter conflict since 2014, when the Kremlin-friendly leader of Ukraine was ousted from office by a popular uprising. Moscow responded by annexing Crimea and then supporting a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has killed more than 14,000 people.
A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany helped halt large-scale battles, but regular skirmishes persisted and efforts to reach a political settlement faltered.
Madani reported from Washington. Associated Press authors Matthew Lee in Washington and Mark Lewis in Stavanger, Norway, also contributed to this report.