Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Thursday urged President Joe Biden in a call on Thursday to tone down his rhetoric about the brewing situation between Ukraine and Russia, amid fears it could cause panic or a run on supplies, according to a report.
Zelensky made the plea in a call that ‘did not go well,’ CNN reported, citing a Ukrainian source. It included a plea by Zelensky for Biden to ‘calm down the messaging’ amid complex maneuverings over the potential invasion.
The urging came in a call where Biden told Zelensky Russia could invade within weeks.
It followed pushback earlier this week from Ukraine as the U.S. told family members of American diplomats to leave. Ukrainian officials maintained the move was unnecessary with a situation that is still uncertain, even as Russia continues to move troops and equipment to positions around Ukraine.
The White House disputed the read on the call, with National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne pushing back on a report that a Ukrainian official said Biden warned Kiev could be ‘sacked’ and to ‘prepare for impact.’
‘This is not true,’ she tweeted. ‘President Biden said that there is a distinct possibility that the Russians could invade Ukraine in February. He has previously said this publicly & we have been warning about this for months. Reports of anything more or different than that are completely false.’
She also tweeted out a statement by Ukraine’s U.S. embassy stating ‘that some reports regarding today’s conversation of President Zelenskyy and President Biden are completely false. He also encouraged to carefully treat all information in this troubled time especially from the unconfirmed sources.’
Horne was even more blunt in a statement to CNN. ”Also, no one said “sacked.” The only person who should be “sacked” is the anonymous source who is circulating an inaccurate portrayal of this conversation,’ she said.
The statement the White put out after the call said the U.S. and allies were ready to ‘respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine.’
The administration’s series of public statements about a potential invasion puts international pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin and could press allies to stiffen their response – although the Ukrainians are seeking to avoid statements that contribute to panic – even as they seek additional aid and arms support.
Amid the fear of an all-out invasion that could seek to cleave Ukrainian positions, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the U.S. response in writing to Russia’s security demands had ‘some grains of reason.’
Zelensky on January 19th urged the Ukrainian public not to panic, telling his countrymen: ‘Take a deep breath, calm down’ amid the talk of an imminent invasion.
If Russia did invade in February, it would time the invasion to coincide with the coldest weeks in eastern Europe, when the ground will be frozen solid allowing tanks and artillery to maneuver easily. US officials have previously said that an unseasonably mild winter appears to have delayed Putin’s attack plans by turning the region into a quagmire.
Separately, a senior British intelligence official warned that Putin is likely to launch an attack on Kiev from Belarus in the north using war games set to take place there next month as cover.
The official, speaking to The Times of London , said this could coincide with an amphibious assault from Crimea on the southern port city of Odessa using transport ships seen sailing around Europe last week in an effort to split the Ukrainian military across two fronts, hundreds of miles apart.
Tens of thousands of troops could then move in from the east, potentially with the aim of capturing the entire country. While Russia’s current troop numbers at the border are insufficient for this operation, the official said, Putin could mass a force large enough to get the job done in ‘two to three weeks’.
Russia is thought to have between 100,000 and 120,000 troops currently massed at the border, which have been recently reinforced with medical teams and logistical support of the kind that is needed to sustain an invading force. Tens of thousands more troops could arrive in the coming weeks, the official said.
‘Some estimates are another 60,000 will come, if not greater than that. It’s certainly not just a negotiating tactic or an idle threat when you deploy this many troops with this capability,’ they said.
But, amid the increasingly alarming rhetoric from the West, Zelensky and his senior staff have been calling for calm – insisting that while the risk of an attack is high, it is far from certain and unlikely to come soon.
Zelensky used his call with Biden to ask him to ‘calm down the messaging’, CNN reported, after using a public address last week to tell Ukrainians to ‘stay calm’ and avoid pulling money from banks or stockpiling supplies.
Several high-ranking Ukrainian officials have also spoken out this week in an attempt to tone down the rhetoric.
Russia could attack Ukraine within weeks, intelligence sources have said, after Biden shared a phone call with President Zelensky last night during which he warned an attack is likely to come in February
Russian armoured troop carriers are pictured taking part in military drills near Rostov-on-Don, located in southern Russia and just a few dozen miles from the Ukraine border
Russian T-72 tanks take part in ‘combat readiness’ drills held Thursday near Rostov-on-Don, near the Ukraine border
US analysts believe that Putin is waiting for the weather to turn cold enough to freeze the ground solid, paving the way for an invasion because it would allow his tanks to manoeuvre easily (pictured, Russian tanks in drills near Ukraine on Thursday)
Russian BMP-3 armoured troop carriers are pictured on manoeuvres in the Rostov region of southern Russia on Thursday
Russian artillery units stationed in the Rostov region, near the border with Ukraine, take part in live fire exercises today
Artillery units based in Russia’s Rostov region take part in live-fire exercises on Friday, just one of several simultaneous drills taking place as Putin continues his sabre-rattling
Russian artillery crews fire their gun during live-fire drills in Rostov region, just a few dozen miles from the Ukraine border
Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, is pictured on a phone call with President Biden – during which the US leader is thought to have warned him that a Russian invasion is just weeks away
The National Security Council’s spokesperson Emily Horne publicly disputed CNN’s reporting in a tweet Thursday night, saying in a statement to the network that ‘no one said “sacked”‘
An NSC official also retweeted a statement by Ukraine’s embassy in Washington
The defence minister has insisted there has been no change in the threat Russia poses since an initial build-up of forces took place last spring; the head of the national security council accused the West of ramping up the danger for geopolitical purposes; and the foreign ministry criticised the UK and US for withdrawing diplomats.
Following Zelensky’s call with Biden, there was a briefing war between an unnamed Ukrainian source who claimed the call ‘did not go well’ because the US President had insisted an attack was imminent while Zelensky was keen to downplay the threat.
CNN initially reported that Biden had told Zelesnky that an attack was ‘certain’ once the ground freezes over and that Kiev is directly threatened, though US and Ukrainian officials later denied that conversation had taken place.
Never-the-less, signs that Ukraine and America are signing from two different hymn sheets will create fears about the strength of their alliance if Putin decides to march his forces across the border.
It could also undermine Biden’s hardline stance against Russia if it emerges that Us intelligence has over-stated the threat, especially with allies such as Germany that have urged him to take a softer line.
The call came just a day after two letters were sent to Vladimir Putin, rejecting his demands that Ukraine be banned from joining NATO and that the alliance withdraw all its forces from ex-Soviet states.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent one letter, while the other was sent by NATO chief Jens Stoltenburg. Neither missive has been made public, but both men have said no ground was given on Putin’s key demands. Instead, Blinken said ‘serious’ counter-offers were made that he hopes will tempt the Kremlin into continuing talks.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said yesterday that there is ‘little ground for optimism’ after reading the letters – but left the door to more talks open and said Russia will not rush to give a response.
Tensions have soared in recent weeks, as the United States and its NATO allies expressed concern that a buildup of about 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine signaled that Moscow planned to invade its ex-Soviet neighbor.
Russia denies having any such designs – and has laid out a series of demands it says will improve security in Europe.
But as expected, the U.S. and the Western alliance firmly rejected any concessions on Moscow’s main points Wednesday, refusing to permanently ban Ukraine from joining NATO and saying allied deployments of troops and military equipment in Eastern Europe are nonnegotiable.
The U.S. did outline areas in which some of Russia’s concerns might be addressed, possibly offering a path to de-escalation.
But, as it has done repeatedly for the past several weeks, Washington also warned Moscow of devastating sanctions if it invades Ukraine.
Biden used the call with Zelensky to repeat his support for the country in the form of sanctions and military aid, though stopping short of putting boots on the ground
Russian rocket artillery take part in live-fire drills on a military base near Moscow on Friday, as fears of war in Ukraine grow
A Russian rocket artillery battery lets off a volley during live-fire exercises at the Golovenki training ground, near Moscow
Rocket artillery of the Russian armed forces take part in live-fire exercises on a training ground near Moscow today
A Russian-backed rebel fighter is seen moving through a trench in eastern Ukraine, where fighting with government forces has been ongoing since 2014
A Moscow-backed rebel soldier aims a machinegun through a peep-hole in his trench, just yards from the frontline with Ukrainian forces in the country’s east
Mosco-backed rebel troops armed with Kalashnikov rifles stand guard in a trench near the frontlines with Ukraine
In addition to penalties targeting Russian people and key economic sectors, several senior U.S. officials said Thursday with certainty that Germany would not allow a newly constructed gas pipeline to begin operations in the event of an incursion.
All eyes are now on Putin, who will decide how Russia will respond amid fears that Europe could again be plunged into war.
In the meantime, Biden spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart Zelenskyy on Thursday to reiterate American and allied support, including recent deliveries of U.S. military aid.
Biden warned Zelenskyy that the U.S. believed there was a high degree of likelihood that Russia could invade when the ground freezes and Russian forces could attack Ukrainian territory from north of Kyiv, according to two people familiar with the conversation who were not authorized to comment publicly.
Military experts have said Russia may be waiting for optimal ground conditions to move heavy equipment into Kyiv as part of any invasion. Eight years ago, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in late February.
Zelenskyy tweeted that he and Biden also discussed the possibility of additional financial support for Ukraine.
The White House said Biden told Zelenskyy he was ‘exploring additional macroeconomic support to help Ukraine’s economy’ as it comes under pressure as a result of Russia’s military buildup.
Meanwhile, the United States announced that the U.N. Security Council will hold an open meeting Monday on what U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield called Russia’s ‘threatening behavior.’ She said the deployment of more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border and other destabilizing acts pose ‘a clear threat to international peace and security and the U.N. Charter.’
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters earlier that the response from the U.S. – and a similar one from NATO – left ‘little ground for optimism.’ But he added that ‘there always are prospects for continuing a dialogue, it’s in the interests of both us and the Americans.’
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was circumspect when asked whether the Biden administration saw a sliver of hope in that the Russians said they would keep communications open even as they said that they lacked optimism..
‘We don’t know if the Russians are playing games on diplomacy. We hope not,’ Psaki said.
A man crosses himself while kneeling in front of a memorial commemorating those who died fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, outside military headquarters in Kiev
Ukrainian soldiers are seen saluting through a mock bullet-hole in a memorial to those who died fighting in the Donbass region against Moscow-backed rebel groups
Honour guards fire a salute during a ceremony in tribute to fallen defenders of Ukraine during a ceremony in Kiev today
Ukrainian servicemen of the 24th Brigade are seen outside of Zolote, close to the frontlines with Moscow-backed rebels
A Ukrainian soldier walks through a trench close to the town of Zolote, in the country’s unstable eastern regions
A Ukrainian soldier uses a periscope to examine enemy positions on the frontlines with Russian-backed rebel forces
An Ukrainian serviceman heads to an advanced position on the front line in the Luhansk area, eastern Ukraine
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the U.S. response contained some elements that could lead to ‘the start of a serious talk on secondary issues,’ but emphasized that ‘the document contains no positive response on the main issue.’ Those are Moscow’s demands that NATO not expand and that the alliance refrain from deploying weapons that might threaten Russia.
Lavrov said top officials will submit proposals to Putin. Peskov said the Russian reaction would come soon.
The evasive official comments reflect the fact that it is Putin who will single-handedly determine Russia’s next moves. He has warned of unspecified ‘military-technical measures’ if the West refuses to heed the demands.
Peskov added that Putin and Biden will decide whether they need to have another conversation following two calls last month.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv had seen the U.S. response before it was delivered to Russia and had no objections. He tweeted it was ‘important that the U.S. remains in close contact with Ukraine before and after all contacts with Russia.’
On a visit to Denmark, Kuleba emphasized his country’s need to strengthen its defenses.
‘This crisis is a moment of truth, and this is why we speak about weapons,’ he said. ‘This is why we speak about economic sanctions. This is why we speak about the consolidated position of all of us, so that President Putin sees that there are no weak links in our defensive chain.’
Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said during a parliamentary debate on Ukraine that her government is closely coordinating its policy with allies, considering a range of options that could include the new Nord Stream 2 Russian gas pipeline to Germany.
While the diplomacy sputters on, so too do maneuvers that have escalated tensions. Russia has launched a series of military drills involving motorized infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russia, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, dozens of warships in the Black Sea and the Arctic, and Russian fighter jets and paratroopers in Belarus.
NATO said it was bolstering its deterrence in the Baltic Sea region, and the U.S. ordered 8,500 troops on higher alert for potential deployment to Europe.
As war fears mounted, thousands of Ukrainians expressed their resolve to stand up to the Russian pressure under the hashtag (hash)UkrainiansWillResist on Twitter and Facebook.
An American fighter jet takes part in pre-deployment training drills including coming under NATO command off the US coast
US naval forces prepare for deployment after President Biden put 8,500 troops on alert to deploy to eastern Europe
‘No one will force Ukrainians to accept the Kremlin ultimatum,’ wrote Andrii Levus, who initiated the campaign.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry has organized training on acting in emergency situations, with an emphasis on dealing with explosives.
Beyond concerns about a possible Russian offensive in Ukraine, there also has been speculation that Moscow’s response could include military deployments to the Western Hemisphere.
While a senior Russian diplomat recently refused to rule out such deployments to Cuba and Venezuela, a top Putin associate expressed skepticism Thursday at that prospect.
‘Cuba and Venezuela are aiming to come out of isolation and restore normal relations with the U.S. to a certain extent, so there can’t be any talk about setting up a base there as happened during the Soviet times,’ Dmitry Medvedev, a deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, told Russian media.
While he charged that the West is using Ukraine as a way to contain Russia, he somberly acknowledged that a Russia-NATO conflict ‘would be the most dramatic and simply catastrophic scenario, and I hope it will never happen.’
While concerns about a possible Russian attack linger, a separatist conflict simmers in Ukraine. Following the 2014 ouster of a Kremlin-friendly president in Kyiv, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed an insurgency in the country’s eastern industrial heartland.
Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels has killed over 14,000 people, and efforts to reach a settlement have stalled.
Since the conflict began, Russia has been accused of sending troops and weapons to the separatists, something it has denied.
On Thursday, Peskov wouldn’t comment on a proposal from the Kremlin’s main political party, United Russia, which suggested that Moscow respond to the delivery of Western weapons to Ukraine by sending arms to the rebels.
He added that Putin is aware of the proposal but had no immediate reaction.