Leaders pitch last-ditch diplomacy as Ukraine-Russia tensions on 'edge of a precipice'
Embassies have been evacuated in Ukraine amid fears of Russian invasion
The Kremlin signalled Monday it is ready to keep talking with the West about security grievances that led to the current Ukraine crisis, offering hope that Russia might not invade its beleaguered neighbour within days, as the U.S. and Europe increasingly fear.
Questions remain about Russian President Vladimir Putin's intentions, however. And countries around Europe are evacuating diplomats and on alert for possible imminent war amid the worst East-West tensions since the Cold War.
On a last-ditch diplomatic trip, Germany's chancellor said there are "no sensible reasons" for the buildup of more than 130,000 Russian troops on Ukraine's borders to the north, south and east, and he urged more dialogue. Britain's prime minister said Europe is "on the edge of a precipice," but added: "There is still time for President Putin to step back."
The U.S. State Department said on Monday that American citizens should leave Belarus immediately due to the buildup of Russian troops along Belarus' border with Ukraine. This comes after several nations warned their citizens to leave Ukraine last week.
Despite warnings from Washington, London and elsewhere that Russian troops could move on Ukraine at a moment's notice, Monday's meeting between Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested otherwise.
At the session with Putin, Lavrov argued that Moscow should hold more talks with the U.S. and its allies despite their refusal to consider Russia's main security demands.
Moscow, which denies having any plans to invade Ukraine, wants Western guarantees that NATO won't allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members.
It also wants the alliance to halt weapons deployments to Ukraine and roll back its forces from eastern Europe — demands flatly rejected by the West.
The talks "can't go on indefinitely, but I would suggest to continue and expand them at this stage," Lavrov said, noting that Washington has offered to conduct dialogue on limits for missile deployments in Europe, restrictions on military drills and other confidence-building measures. He said possibilities for talks "are far from being exhausted."
His comments, at an appearance orchestrated for TV cameras, seemed designed to send a message to the world about Putin's own position: namely, that hopes for a diplomatic solution aren't yet dead.
Putin noted the West could try to draw Russia into "endless talks" without conclusive results and questioned whether there is still a chance to reach agreement on Moscow's key demands. Lavrov replied that his ministry wouldn't allow the U.S. and its allies to stonewall Russia's main requests.
In a phone call Sunday, U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to keep pushing both deterrence and diplomacy.
Zelensky's office also quoted him suggesting a quick Biden visit would help — a possibility that was not mentioned in the White House summary of the call. Such a visit would be unlikely as the U.S. is now operating with a skeleton diplomatic staff in Kyiv.
Satellite images taken over the last 48 hours show increased Russian military activity in Belarus, Crimea and western Russia, including the arrival of helicopters, ground-attack aircraft and fighter-bomber jets at forward locations.
The photos also show ground forces leaving their garrisons and combat units moving into convoy formation, according to Maxar Technologies, a commercial satellite imagery company that has been monitoring the Russian buildup.
'Harder and harder to keep calm'
Ukrainian security and defence council chief Oleksiy Danilov downplayed the threat of invasion but warned of the risk of "internal destabilization" by unspecified forces.
"Today we do not see that a large-scale offensive by the Russian Federation can take place either on [Feb.] 16th or the 17th," he told reporters after meeting lawmakers. "We are aware of the risks that exist in the territory of our country. But the situation is absolutely under control."
As if to show defiance, Zelensky said Wednesday would be a "day of national unity," calling on the country to display the blue-and-yellow flags and sing the national anthem in the face of "hybrid threats."
"Our country today is as strong as ever. It is not the first threat the strong Ukrainian people have faced," Zelensky said Monday evening in a video address to the nation. "We're calm. We're strong. We're together. A great nation in a great country."
The country is preparing nonetheless. Kyiv residents received letters from the mayor urging them "to defend your city" and signs appeared in apartment buildings indicating the nearest bomb shelter. The mayor says the capital has about 4,500 such sites, including underground parking garages, subway stations and basements.
Dr. Tamara Ugrich said she stocked up on grains and canned food and prepared an emergency suitcase.
"I don't believe in war, but on TV, the tension is growing every day — and it's getting harder and harder to keep calm. The more we are told not to panic, the more nervous people become," she said.
Others heeded the advice of Ukraine's leaders not to panic. Street music flooded central Maidan Square on Sunday night and crowds danced.
"I feel calm. You should always be ready for everything, and then you will have nothing to be afraid of," said Alona Buznitskaya, a model.
On the front line of Ukraine's long-running conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the east, Ukrainian soldiers said shelling from the rebel-controlled area has increased in the last three days. But they said they're used to it and aren't alarmed about an imminent incursion.
'No alternative to diplomacy'
During what could be a crucial week for Europe's security, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Ukraine before heading to Moscow for talks with Putin on a high-stakes diplomatic foray.
After meeting with Zelensky, Scholz urged Russia to show signs of de-escalation, and reiterated unspecified threats to Russia's financial standing if it invades.
"There are no sensible reasons for such a military deployment," Scholz said. "No one should doubt the determination and preparedness of the EU, NATO, Germany and the United States," in case of a military offensive.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres held talks with Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, underlining "there is no alternative to diplomacy."
NATO countries have also been building up forces in eastern Europe and offering aid.
Germany's military said the first of 350 extra troops it is sending to bolster NATO forces in Lithuania were dispatched Monday, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada will provide a $500-million loan to Ukraine — on top of a previously announced $120-million loan — and says it will also provide $7.8 million worth of "lethal equipment and ammunition."
The U.S. said it will close its embassy in Kyiv and move all remaining staff there to Lviv, a city near the Polish border. Lithuania moved diplomats' families and some nonessential diplomatic workers out of the country as well.
"It's a big mistake that some embassies moved to western Ukraine," Zelensky said. "It's their decision, but 'western Ukraine' doesn't exist. It's united Ukraine. If something happens, God forbid, [escalation] will be everywhere."
The U.S. and its NATO allies have repeatedly warned Russia will pay a high price for any invasion — but they have sometimes struggled to present a united front.
Scholz's government, particularly, has been criticized for refusing to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine or spell out which sanctions it supports, raising questions about Berlin's resolve. No new specifics emerged from his visit to Kyiv.
So far, NATO's warnings appear to have had little effect: Russia has only bolstered troops and weapons in the region and launched massive drills in its ally Belarus, which also neighbours Ukraine. The West fears that the drills, which run through Sunday, could be used by Moscow as a cover for an invasion from the north.
Russia has repeatedly brushed off the concerns, saying it has the right to deploy forces on its territory.
Ukraine's NATO 'dream'
One possible off-ramp emerged this week: Ukraine's ambassador to the U.K., Vadym Prystaiko, pointed at a possibility of Ukraine shelving its NATO bid — an objective that is written into its constitution — if it would avert war with Russia.
"We might — especially being threatened like that, blackmailed by that, and pushed to it," Prystaiko told BBC Radio 5.
On Monday, Prystaiko appeared to back away from that. Some lawmakers called for Prystaiko's dismissal — but the fact the idea was raised at all suggests it is being discussed behind closed doors.
Pressed over Ukraine's NATO ambitions Monday, the Ukrainian president remained vague, referring to them as a "dream."
With files from Reuters and The Canadian Press