Russian president Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Joe Biden held a high-stakes telephone call on Saturday as tensions escalate amid fears of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The move came as the US announced an evacuation of its embassy in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, as Washington and its allies warned Russian forces massed near Ukraine could invade at any moment.
During the hour-long call Mr Biden told Mr Putin that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would bring a decisive and swift response from the West, as well as produce widespread suffering and diminish Russia’s standing in the world.
A senior Biden administration official said the call was professional and substantive, but said there was no fundamental change.
Mr Biden told Mr Putin that the US is prepared for diplomacy and "other scenarios", the White House said. The senior Biden administration official said it remains unclear whether Mr Putin is willing to pursue a diplomatic path.
Meanwhile the Kremlin said that Mr Putin told Mr Biden that Moscow would review ideas Mr Biden laid out to address Russian security demands, which included a demand for a veto on Ukraine ever joining Nato, but that the ideas had not taken into account key concerns. Kremlin official Yuri Ushakov said the phone call took place against a backdrop of "hysteria" in the West about an impending Russian invasion that he said was an absurd idea.
Mr Putin also told Mr Biden he thought the West was not putting enough pressure on Ukraine to implement the Minsk peace agreements on the conflict in east Ukraine, Mr Ushakov said.
Mr Ushakov also said Russia had practically finished drawing up its response to existing counterproposals from the US and Nato to the security demands and would announce it soon.
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 as 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.
Mr Biden and Mr Macron were due to speak after their separate calls with Mr Putin, according to a French presidency official. The official said there were no indications from what Mr Putin told Mr Macron that Russia is preparing an offensive against Ukraine. “We are nevertheless extremely vigilant and alert to the Russian [military] posture in order to avoid the worst,” the official 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.
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 Minsk peace deal brokered by France and Germany helped halt large-scale battles in eastern Ukraine, but regular skirmishes have continued, and efforts to reach a political settlement have stalled
Mr Biden said the US military will not enter a war in Ukraine, but has promised severe economic sanctions against Moscow in the event of an offensive into Ukraine, 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.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken said Washington would impose swift economic sanctions if Mr Putin decides to invade.
“I continue to hope that he will not choose the path of renewed aggression and he’ll choose the path of diplomacy and dialogue,” Mr Blinken told reporters after a meeting with Pacific leaders in Fiji. “But if he doesn’t, we’re prepared.”
On Saturday, the US state department ordered most of its embassy staff to leave Ukraine, adding to its call on Friday for private US citizens to get out of the country within 48 hours. The Pentagon also said it was withdrawing about 150 military trainers from the country.
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.
“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 Ukraine’s coast.
Mr Sullivan said the combination of a further Russian troop build-up on Ukraine's borders and unspecified intelligence indicators have prompted the Biden 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 Mr Blinken spoke 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".
Although Mr Biden has said US troops will not enter Ukraine to contest any Russian invasion, 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. – AP/Reuters