Putin and Biden to speak today as US warns Ukraine invasion may be imminent

A high-stakes phonecall between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin is planned for Saturday. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP via Getty


Russian president Vladimir Putin and his United States counterpart Joe Biden will hold a high-stakes telephone call on Saturday as tensions escalate over a potential invasion of Ukraine.

The move came as the US announced plans to evacuate its embassy in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Before talking to Mr Biden, the Russian leader shared a call with French president Emmanuel Macron, who met with him in Moscow earlier in the week in a bid to resolve the crisis.

During the call Mr Macron and Mr Putin discussed ways to move forward on implementation of the Minsk Agreements, as well conditions for security and stability in Europe, the Élysée Palace said on Saturday.

“The president of the republic [Mr Macron] relayed the concerns of his European partners and allies to his interlocutor. He told president Putin that sincere dialogue was not compatible with escalation,” an Élysée statement said.

Russia has massed troops near the Ukraine border and sent personnel to military exercises in neighbouring Belarus, but insistently denies that it intends to launch an offensive against Ukraine.

Adding to the sense of crisis, the Pentagon has ordered an additional 3,000 US troops to Poland to reassure allies in the region amid the Russian build-up.

Mr Biden said the US military will not enter a war in Ukraine, but promised severe economic sanctions against Moscow, in concert with international allies.

The timing of any possible Russian military action remains a key question.

The US picked up intelligence that Russia is looking at Wednesday as a target date, according to a US official.

The official would not say how definitive the intelligence was, and the White House publicly underlined that the US does not know with certainty whether Mr Putin is committed to invasion.

However, American officials said that Russia’s build-up of offensive air, land and sea firepower near Ukraine has reached the point where it could invade on short notice.

Embassy staff

Officials told the Associated Press that the US state department plans to announce on Saturday that virtually all American staff at the Kyiv embassy will be required to leave, although the state department would not comment.

The department had earlier ordered families of US embassy staffers in Kyiv to leave. But it had left it to the discretion of non-essential personnel if they wanted to depart.

Several Nato allies including the UK, Canada, Norway and Denmark also are asking their citizens to leave Ukraine, as is non-Nato ally New Zealand.

Germany and the Netherlands have also called on their citizens to leave Ukraine as soon as possible

“Russia has all the forces it needs to conduct a major military action,” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan has said, adding: “Russia could choose, in very short order, to commence a major military action against Ukraine.”

He said the scale of such an invasion could range from a limited incursion to a strike on Kyiv.

In addition to the more than 100,000 ground troops that US officials say Russia has assembled along Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders, the Russians have deployed missile, air, naval and special operations forces, as well as supplies to sustain a war.

This week, Russia moved six amphibious assault ships into the Black Sea, augmenting its capability to land marines on the coast.

Mr Sullivan said the combination of a further Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders and unspecified intelligence indicators have prompted the administration to warn that war could begin at any time.

“We can’t pinpoint the day at this point, and we can’t pinpoint the hour, but that is a very, very distinct possibility,” Mr Sullivan said.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US secretary of state Antony Blinken have spoken by telephone ahead of the Putin-Biden talks.

Mr Lavrov said he told Mr Blinken that “the propaganda campaign launched by the United States and its allies about ‘Russian aggression’ against Ukraine pursues provocative goals”.

Europe

Mr Biden has said US troops will not enter Ukraine to contest any Russian invasion, but he has bolstered the American military presence in Europe as reassurance to allies on Nato’s eastern flank.

On Friday the Pentagon said Mr Biden ordered the additional 3,000 soldiers to Poland, on top of 1,700 who are on their way there. The US army is also shifting 1,000 soldiers from Germany to Romania, which like Poland shares a border with Ukraine.

Mr Biden spoke to a number of European leaders on Friday to underscore the concerns raised by US intelligence about the potential imminence of a Russian invasion.

Mr Sullivan said the western leaders were completely united and would respond harshly to a Russian invasion with devastating economic and trade sanctions.

Russia is demanding that the West keeps Ukraine and other former Soviet countries out of Nato.

It also wants Nato to refrain from deploying weapons near its border and to roll back alliance forces from eastern Europe – demands flatly rejected by the West.

Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter conflict since 2014, when Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly leader was driven from office by a popular uprising.

Moscow responded by annexing Crimea 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 helped halt large-scale battles, but regular skirmishes have continued, and efforts to reach a political settlement have stalled. – AP/Reuters

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