- Lavrov, in a meeting with Putin, suggested Moscow keep talking with the US and its allies.
- Russia has not responded formally to several US offers on European military presence.
- German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visits Kyiv on Monday and Moscow on Tuesday for talks.
Statements offered Monday in Moscow, Kyiv and Washington over the situation in eastern Europe offered glimpses of the same conflict through different lenses, underscoring the uncertainty swirling around whether Russia’s troop buildup on Ukraine’s border will turn into a retreat or an attack.
Just a day after a U.S. official said an invasion of Ukraine could come “any day” – with some intelligence specifically citing Wednesday – Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he’d urged President Vladimir Putin to stick with diplomacy in a Monday meeting. The talks “can’t go on indefinitely, but I would suggest to continue and expand them at this stage,” Lavrov said.
Hours later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed his nation, calling on Ukrainians to show their strength on Feb. 16. An accompanying proclamation called for a Day of Unity, complete with flags. Zelenskyy echoed his regular calls for downplaying the “panic” of the West over a potential invasion.
Almost immediately, a U.S. State Department official downplayed Zelenskyy’s comments, noting they weren’t reflective of intelligence given to Ukraine by the U.S or its allies.
The flurry of statements came amid diplomacy and action.
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The State Department announcement that the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine would be temporarily moved out of Kyiv ahead of a feared Russian invasion. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the embassy would be relocated from the Ukrainian capital to Lviv in the western part of the country, near the border with Poland.
And on a last-ditch 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.”
Zelenskyy calls for Ukrainian Day of Unity
State Department spokesman Ned Price downplayed comments Monday made by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that suggested Wednesday could be the day when Russia invades Ukraine.
In a speech posted on social media, Zelenskyy sought to drum up national unity amid the threats of a Russian invasion, saying that others are trying to spread “panic” among the Ukraine people.
“We are being told that February 16 will be the day of the attack,” Zelenskyy said. “We will make it the day of unity.”
A statement from an aide to Zelenskyy noted the president’s statements weren’t sarcastic, noting the situation was being treated “quite seriously.” The aide said the president rather referred to so-called “leaks” or rumors widespread in media and social networks about the most probable date of Russian aggression.
Price said the comments don’t reflect information relayed by the U.S. to Ukraine and other allies.
“We are not saying that President Putin has made a final decision,” Price said. “We have not communicated otherwise to our partners. We believe diplomacy continues to be viable. We believe that there still remains a window to resolve this through dialogue and diplomacy.”
However, Price said the U.S. has “not seen any real sign of de-escalation” by Russia President Vladimir Putin.
White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the White House heard Zelenskyy’s statement but could not speak to whether it was intended as “irony.” She also declined to address what she called “intelligence matters.”
“As we said before, we are in the window when an invasion could begin at any time,” she said. “It remains unclear which path Russia will choose to take.”
– Joey Garrison, Kim Hjelmgaard, Karina Zaiets
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Defense secretary heads to Europe
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin leaves Tuesday for meetings with military and government leaders in Belgium, Poland and Lithuania, to discuss the Russian buildup of troops in Ukraine, the Pentagon announced Monday.
Austin will meet with defense ministers of U.S. allies, along with NATO leadership, in Belgium “to discuss Russia’s military buildup in and around Ukraine, reiterate the U.S. commitment to Article 5, and continue the Alliance’s progress on deterrence and defense while ensuring the Alliance is prepared to face tomorrow’s challenges.”
Article 5 is NATO’s mutual defense clause. An attack on one NATO country is considered an attack on every member of the alliance.
He will then travel to Poland, meeting with President Andrzej Duda and the nation’s defense minister. Poland shares a border with Ukraine. Austin will also meet with troops from the U.S. and Poland at Powidz Air Base.
Austin will then head to Lithuania to meet with President Gitanas Nausėda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte and Defense Minister Arvydas Anušauskas, along with defense ministers of neighboring Estonia and Latvia.
– Katie Wadington, Maureen Groppe
U.S. to temporarily move embassy in Ukraine out of Kyiv
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday called the relocation of the U.S. Embassy “prudent” in light of a dramatic buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern border, but he stressed that the move would not undermine U.S. commitment or support to Ukraine.
“The embassy will remain engaged with the Ukrainian government, coordinating diplomatic engagement in Ukraine,” Blinken said in a statement. The U.S. is continuing diplomatic efforts to deescalate the crisis, he said.
“We look forward to returning our staff to the embassy as soon as conditions permit,” he said.
The United States said last week that it would evacuate the embassy in Kyiv as Western intelligence officials warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is increasingly imminent.
On Saturday, the U.S. ordered non-emergency staff at the embassy to leave Kyiv. The State Department had earlier ordered families of U.S. embassy staffers in Kyiv to leave, but had left it to the discretion of nonessential personnel if they wanted to depart.
– Michael Collins
Lavrov urges Putin to keep talking
At a Monday 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 it has 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. Lavrov 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.
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Scholz, Zelenskyy talk in Kyiv
Their meeting came as Germany’s chancellor began a trip to Kyiv and Moscow for a last-ditch attempt to head off a feared Russian invasion of Ukraine that some warn could be only days away.
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 Zelenskyy, Scholz urged Russia to show signs of de-escalation, and reiterated unspecified threats to Russia’s financial standing if it invades.
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“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 an military offensive.
Zelenskyy said, “It is in Ukraine that the future of the European security architecture — of which our state is a part — is being decided today.”
Scholz will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
NATO troops, weapons get set
NATO countries have been building up forces in eastern Europe. Germany’s military said the first of 350 extra troops it is sending to bolster NATO forces in Lithuania were dispatched Monday. Lithuania moved diplomats’ families and some nonessential diplomatic workers out of Ukraine after the U.S. and others pulled most of their staff from embassies in Kyiv.
“It’s a big mistake that some embassies moved to western Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said. “It’s their decision, but ‘western Ukraine’ doesn’t exist. It’s united Ukraine. If something happens, God forbids, it (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.
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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 neighbors 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.
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Is NATO without Ukraine a possibility?
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, saying that “to avoid war we are ready for many concessions … but it has nothing to do with NATO, which is enshrined in the constitution.”
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Asked about the comment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would welcome such a move but noted its quick repudiation by Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry.
Some lawmakers called for Prystaiko’s dismissal — but the fact the idea was raised at all suggests it is being discussed behind closed doors.
Contributing: Matt Brown, Karina Zaiets, USA TODAY; Associated Press