With the risk of war looming larger, Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden held a high-stakes telephone call Saturday as a tense world watched and worried that an invasion of Ukraine could begin within days.
Before talking to Biden, Putin had a telephone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, who met with him in Moscow earlier in the week to try to resolve the biggest security crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War. A Kremlin summary of the call suggested that little progress was made toward cooling down the tensions.
The closely watched call between Biden and Putin began shortly after 11 am and lasted just over an hour, according to the White House. Biden conducted the call from Camp David. There were no immediate details about the discussion.
In a sign that American officials were getting ready for a worst-case scenario, the United States announced plans to evacuate its embassy in the Ukrainian capital, and Britain joined other European nations in urging its citizens to leave Ukraine.
Russia has massed well over 100,000 troops near the Ukraine border and has sent troops to exercises in neighboring Belarus, but denies that it intends to launch an offensive against Ukraine.
The timing of any possible Russian military action remained a key question.
The US picked up intelligence that Russia is looking at Wednesday as a target date, according to a US official familiar with the findings. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and did so only on condition of anonymity, would not say how definitive the intelligence was. The White House publicly underscored that the US does not know with certainty whether Putin is committed to invasion.
However, US officials said anew that Russia’s buildup of firepower near Ukraine has reached the point where it could invade on short notice.
A Kremlin statement about the Putin-Macron call referred to “provocative speculations about an allegedly planned Russian ‘invasion’ of Ukraine.” Russia has consistently denied that it plans military action against its neighbor.
Putin also in the call that the United States and NATO have not responded satisfactorily to Russian demands that Ukraine be prohibited from joining the military alliance and that NATO pull back forces from Eastern Europe.
Biden has said the US military will not enter a war in Ukraine, but he has promised severe economic sanctions against Moscow, in concert with international allies.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said he told his Russian counterpart Saturday that “further Russian aggression would be met with a resolute, massive and united trans-Atlantic response.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tried to project calm as he observed military exercises Saturday near Crimea, the peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
“We are not afraid, we’re without panic, all is under control,” he said.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, also held telephone discussions on Saturday.
UK troops that have been training the Ukrainian army also planned to leave the country. Germany, the Netherlands and Italy called on their citizens to leave as soon as possible.
A State Department travel advisory on Saturday said most American staff at the Kyiv embassy have been ordered to leave and other US citizens should depart the country as well.
Further US-Russia tensions arose on Saturday when the Defense 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.
Adding to the sense of crisis, the Pentagon ordered an additional 3,000 US troops to Poland to reassure allies.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Americans in Ukraine should not expect the US military to rescue them in the event that air and rail transportation is severed after a Russian invasion.
Several NATO allies, including Britain, Canada, Norway and Denmark, also asked their citizens to leave Ukraine, as did non-NATO ally New Zealand.
Sullivan said Russian military action could start with missile and air attacks, followed by a ground offensive.
“Russia has all the forces it needs to conduct a major military action,” Sullivan said, adding that “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, the capital.
Russia scoffed at the US talk of urgency.
“The hysteria of the White House is more indicative than ever,” said Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman. “The Anglo-Saxons need a war. At any cost. Provocations, misinformation and threats are a favorite method of solving their own problems.”
Zakharova said her country had “optimized” staffing at its own embassy in Kyiv in response to concerns about possible military actions from the Ukrainian side.
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.
Sullivan’s stark warning accelerated the projected time frame for a potential invasion, which many analysts had believed was unlikely until after the Winter Olympics in China end on Feb. 20. Sullivan said the combination of a further Russian troop buildup on Ukraine’s borders and unspecified intelligence indicators have prompted the administration to warn that war could begin 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,” Sullivan said.
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 keep 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 over 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.