KYIV, Ukraine — President Joe Biden warned President Vladimir Putin of Russia that invading Ukraine would result in “swift and severe” costs to Russia, diminish his country’s standing and cause “widespread human suffering,” the White House said Saturday as Western officials made a forceful diplomatic push to dissuade Putin from pressing forward with an attack.
It remained uncertain whether Putin would invade, according to senior Biden administration officials. But after the call, one official said that the situation remained as urgent as it was Friday when the administration said Russia could invade at any moment and Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, warned Americans to leave the country in the coming days.
White House officials said that Biden discussed a range of diplomatic options with Putin but that it was unclear if Putin was persuaded to take that route.
A foreign policy aide to Putin, Yuri Ushakov, described the call with Biden as “businesslike” but overshadowed by American “hysteria” over a possibly imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. He said that Putin would consider Biden’s proposals but that they ignored Russia’s key demands for “security guarantees” in Eastern Europe, including a legally binding halt to NATO expansion and a pullback of the alliance’s military presence in the region.
And Ushakov continued to reject the idea that Russia was threatening a war. “We have repeatedly underlined that we don’t understand why the news media should be given clearly false information about Russian plans,” he said.
But one U.S. national security official, who briefed reporters shortly after the call, said that there was “no fundamental change in the dynamic that has unfolded now for several weeks,” an acknowledgment that Putin has continued to build up a military presence that has effectively surrounded Ukraine.
The two leaders spoke only hours after the United States ordered most of its diplomats and other staff members to leave the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, amid mounting fears that Russia’s huge buildup of forces on land and at sea around Ukraine signaled that an invasion was imminent.
A senior Department of State official said Saturday that the drawdown at the embassy, one of United States’ largest in Europe, reflected the urgent need for U.S. citizens to leave Ukraine immediately because Washington would have a limited ability to help them if the country became a “war zone.”
In a sign of the mounting anxiety, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a “temporary” repositioning of 160 National Guard trainers from Ukraine to “elsewhere in Europe,” the Pentagon said Saturday. The trainers have been working alongside an undisclosed number of Army Green Berets, who will remain in Ukraine for now, officials said.
Despite the warnings, U.S. officials believe that Putin may not yet have made a final decision to invade, and the West’s diplomatic scramble continued Saturday. President Emmanuel Macron of France spent one hour and 40 minutes on the phone with Putin, Macron’s office said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Austin made separate calls to their Russian counterparts Saturday. And President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine continued to play down the threat, expressing frustration with Washington.
“The best friend for enemies is panic in our country,” Zelenskyy told reporters, in English, while observing a police training exercise in southern Ukraine. “And all this information — that helps only for panic, doesn’t help us.”
Putin is likely to offer more public clues to his position in the coming days. Ushakov said Russia’s response to last month’s U.S. security proposals would be made public soon. On Tuesday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany will travel to Moscow, after holding talks in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, the previous day. And Wednesday — the day that U.S. officials have said a Russian invasion could begin — Putin is scheduled to host President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil in Moscow.
The diplomatic flurry came as Russia’s military posture continued to grow more ominous. More than 30 Russian navy ships — including frigates, missile boats and submarine chasers — set sail for exercises in the Black Sea, Russia’s Defense Ministry said. The deployment strengthened the effective encirclement of Ukraine by Russian forces from all sides but the west.
Ukrainian military officials have grown increasingly concerned about the deployment of special forces and airborne troops to regions near the Ukrainian border. Two days ago, the Kremlin deployed more than 50 attack and transport helicopters to Machulishchi in Belarus and Valuiki in Russia, both within easy striking distance of Ukraine, a senior Ukrainian military official said Saturday. Such helicopters would be used to provide close air support for any ground forces used in an invasion.
U.S. officials believe that if Russia launches an invasion of Ukraine next week, it could be preceded by an operation meant to create a false pretext for the war, according to officials briefed on the intelligence. In recent days, U.S. intelligence agencies have warned the Biden administration of a new so-called false-flag operation intended to fabricate a reason for Russia to invade, according to people briefed on the material.
The details of an attack, including its timing, were unclear.
In Kyiv on Saturday, several thousand people marched in a show of support for Ukraine and to oppose any possible settlement agreement with Russia that would weaken Ukrainian sovereignty.
At Boryspil airport, some foreign residents of Ukraine were lining up for flights out, though many were flying for reasons unrelated to the Russian military threat. Those leaving on flights Saturday morning included relatives of Dutch and South Korean diplomats, a family from Denmark acting on warnings from the Danish government, employees of foreign companies and exchange students.
“The U.S. government was really pressing” a message of threat, Yollanda Mateosh, 19, an exchange student from Mozambique, said of his decision to leave Ukraine on Saturday, cutting short his course of study.
KLM, the main Dutch airline, announced Saturday that it would stop flying to Ukraine, according to Dutch media. The news followed the Dutch government’s travel advisory that asked its citizens in Ukraine to leave immediately because of the worsening security situation.
At the U.S. Embassy compound, local Ukrainian staff members carried dozens of plastic bags and loaded them into cars. Some carried out potted plants. All declined to answer questions. At one point, a gigantic stack of pizzas was delivered.
As of last month, the embassy in Kyiv had 181 U.S. diplomats and officials from other government agencies and more than 560 Ukrainian employees. The State Department official said that a couple thousand Americans in Ukraine had reached out and advised the embassy of their whereabouts, but it did not provide a precise estimate of how many Americans were in Ukraine.
The official told reporters that the removal of most U.S. diplomats from Kyiv should not be seen as diminishing U.S. support for Ukraine. Even as embassy employees were preparing to depart, the official said, U.S. weaponry for the Ukrainian army was arriving in the capital.
The official said efforts were also underway at the embassy to destroy or otherwise reduce classified documents and equipment.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry also said it had decided to reduce the staffing of its missions in Ukraine, which include an embassy in Kyiv and consulates in Lviv, Odessa and Kharkiv.
“We are drawing the conclusion that our American and British colleagues seem to know about certain military actions being prepared in Ukraine,” Maria Zakharova, the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, said in a statement. “Our embassy and consulates will continue to exercise their main functions.”
Zelenskyy played down the U.S. warnings of an imminent invasion, urging calm and claiming he had not seen intelligence showing that Russia was poised to attack. He told reporters that there was “too much information in the information space” about a possible full-scale war with Russia, and he ridiculed news reports that Russia could be planning to invade Feb. 16.
Zelenskyy has for weeks expressed frustration with the U.S. messaging on the crisis, criticizing the Biden administration for sowing panic in Kyiv and harming Ukraine’s economy. U.S. officials respond that they are reacting to the intelligence, and they hope that calling Putin out publicly on his possible invasion plans could help deter him from taking action.
The French government said in its readout of Macron’s call with Putin that the two leaders had discussed “ways of moving forward” with implementing a 2015 peace plan for eastern Ukraine and had continued talks over the “conditions of security and stability in Europe.”
In a statement about the call with Macron, the Kremlin described warnings of a Russian invasion as “provocative speculation.” At the same time, the Kremlin said, the West was “pumping” Ukraine full of modern weaponry and “creating the conditions” for a Ukrainian attack on Russia-backed separatists in the country’s east.
Blinken, in his call with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, on Saturday, warned that “should Moscow pursue the path of aggression and further invade Ukraine, it would result in a resolute, massive and united trans-Atlantic response,” the Department of State said.
But Lavrov apparently remained dismissive of the dire warnings, insisting that it was the U.S. that was worsening tensions and was seeking to encourage the Ukrainian government to attack the Russia-backed separatists in the country’s east.
But just outside Ukraine’s borders, Russia continued to mass forces. The 30 warships whose departure the Defense Ministry announced Saturday will join other Russian vessels, including amphibious landing craft, that have arrived in the waters south of Ukraine over the past few weeks, many from distant ports in the Arctic Ocean and the Baltic Sea. In Ukraine’s southwest, on the border with Moldova, where Russia maintains forces in the breakaway region of Transnistria, Russian snipers took part in a shooting competition, and military engineers conducted a training session.
And in Belarus to the north, large-scale exercises scheduled to end Feb. 20 continued, including with a large-scale mock tank battle, according to a video published by the Russian Defense Ministry.