Ukraine’s president has played down intensified warnings of a possible Russian invasion within days, saying he has yet to see convincing evidence.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy's comments come as the US warned of more Russian troops pressing closer to Ukraine’s borders and some airlines cancelled or diverted flights to the country.
The Ukrainian leader's repeated statements urging calm among his people — while Russian forces surround his country on three sides in what Russia insists are military exercises — grew this weekend, with Mr Zelenskiy questioning strident warnings from US officials in recent days that Russia could be planning to invade as soon as the middle of next week.
The US picked up intelligence that Russia was looking at Wednesday as a target date, according to a United States official familiar with the findings.
The Russians have deployed missile, air, naval and special operations forces, as well as supplies to sustain an invasion.
This week, Russia moved six amphibious assault ships into the Black Sea, augmenting its capability to land on the coast.
Mr Zelenskiy's comments this weekend indicated frustration at the warnings from Washington, as he tried to minimise damage to Ukraine’s economy during the crisis.
“We understand all the risks, we understand that there are risks,” he said in a live broadcast.
“If you, or anyone else, has additional information regarding a 100 per cent Russian invasion starting on the 16th, please forward that information to us.”
In an hour-long call on Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr Biden said an invasion of Ukraine would cause "widespread human suffering" and that the West was committed to diplomacy to end the crisis but "equally prepared for other scenarios", the White House said.
Reflecting the West’s concerns, Dutch airline KLM has cancelled flights to Ukraine until further notice, the company said.
And the Ukrainian charter airline SkyUp said on Sunday that its flight from Madeira, Portugal, to Kyiv was diverted to the Moldovan capital of Chisinau after the plane’s Irish lessor said it was banning flights in Ukrainian airspace.
Ukrainian presidential spokesman Serhii Nykyforov told The Associated Press that Ukraine has not closed its airspace.
But Ukraine’s air traffic safety agency Ukraerorukh issued a statement declaring the airspace over the Black Sea to be a “zone of potential danger” and recommended that planes avoid flying over the sea between February 14th and 19th. An adviser to Ukrainian president’s chief of staff Mykhailo Podolyak said: “The most important point is that Ukraine itself sees no point in closing the sky. This is nonsense. And, in my opinion, it somewhat resembles a kind of partial blockade.
“If particular air carriers decide to reconfigure the flight schedule, this certainly has nothing to do with the decisions or policies of our state.”
Russia denies it intends to invade but has massed in excess of 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border and has sent troops to exercises in neighbouring Belarus.
US officials say Russia’s build-up of firepower has reached the point where it could invade on short notice.
The Putin-Biden communication, after a call between Mr Putin and French president Emmanuel Macron earlier in the day, came at a critical moment for what has become the biggest security crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
While the US and its Nato allies have no plans to send troops to Ukraine to fight Russia, an invasion and resulting punishing sanctions could reverberate far beyond the former Soviet republic, affecting energy supplies, global markets and the power balance in Europe.
“President Biden was clear with president Putin that while the United States remains prepared to engage in diplomacy, in full co-ordination with our allies and partners, we are equally prepared for other scenarios,” the White House statement said.
Yuri Ushakov, Mr Putin’s top foreign policy aide, said that while tensions had been escalating for months, in recent days “the situation has simply been brought to the point of absurdity”.
He said Mr Biden mentioned the possible sanctions that could be imposed on Russia, but “this issue was not the focus during a fairly long conversation with the Russian leader”.
In a sign that American officials are getting ready for a worst-case scenario, the United States announced plans to evacuate most of its staff from the embassy in the Ukrainian capital and urged all American citizens in Ukraine to leave the country immediately. Several other countries including Ireland, the UK, Canada, Australian, New Zealand, Norway and Denmark have also asked their citizens to leave Ukraine.
The timing of any possible Russian military action remains a key question. The US picked up intelligence that Russia was looking at Wednesday as a target date, according to a US official familiar with the findings.
Further US-Russia tensions arose on Saturday when the defence ministry summoned the US embassy’s military attache after it said the navy detected an American submarine in Russian waters near the Kuril Islands in the Pacific. The submarine declined orders to leave, but departed after the navy used unspecified “appropriate means”, the ministry said.
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 Biden has bolstered the US military presence in Europe as reassurance to allies on Nato’s eastern flank. The 3,000 additional soldiers ordered to Poland come 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.
Russia is demanding that the West keeps 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 the Crimean Peninsula 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. – Associated Press, Reuters