Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden have spoken about Russia’s military build-up, but the one-hour call ended without a breakthrough. The White House has insisted that Moscow faces “swift and severe costs” if it pushes ahead with aggression, while the Kremlin has denounced the United States’s “peak hysteria” surrounding the Ukraine conflict.
“If Russia undertakes a further invasion of Ukraine, the United States together with our Allies and partners will respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs on Russia,” Biden told Putin, according to a White House press release.
While the US was prepared to engage in diplomacy, “we are equally prepared for other scenarios”, Biden said, as the two nations stare down one of the gravest crises in East-West relations since the Cold War.
The Kremlin said Putin told Biden Washington has failed to take Russia’s main concerns into account, and it had received no “substantial answer” on critical elements, including NATO’s expansion and the deployment of offensive forces to Ukraine.
Washington and its allies have warned that the Russian military, which has 100,000 troops massed near Ukraine, could invade at any moment.
Putin has slammed Western claims of an imminent military threat, calling the idea “provocative speculation” that could lead to a conflict in the ex-Soviet country, according to a Russian readout of a call with French President Emmanuel Macron.
The frenzy of telephone diplomacy
Earlier in the day, Putin spoke to his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron as part of the frenzy of telephone diplomacy that seems to have failed to ease the tensions.
Macron’s office said “both expressed a desire to continue dialogue” but, like Washington, reported no clear progress.
“There’s no sign of any real breakthrough although it is significant that the two leaders are still talking,” said Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, reporting from Washington, DC.
Hanna said Biden and Macron are expected to speak later in the day.
Washington and a host of European countries along with Israel cited the growing threat of a Russian invasion as they called on their citizens to leave Ukraine as soon as possible.
The United Kingdom and the US also pulled out most of their remaining military advisors while the US embassy ordered “most” of its Kyiv staff to leave.
Dutch carrier KLM announced that it was suspending commercial flights to Ukraine until further notice.
Russia on Saturday added to the ominous tone by pulling some of its diplomatic staff out of Ukraine.
The foreign ministry in Moscow said its decision was prompted by fears of “possible provocations from the Kyiv regime”.
The prospect of fleeing Westerners prompted Kyiv to issue an appeal to its citizens to “remain calm”.
“Right now, the people’s biggest enemy is panic,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on a visit to troops stationed near the Russian-annexed peninsula of Crimea.
Several thousand Ukrainians braved the winter cold to march through Kyiv in a show of unity amid the growing fears of war.
“Panic is useless,” said student Maria Shcherbenko as the crowd waved Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flags and sang the national anthem. “We must unite and fight for independence.”
Adding to the already heightened tensions, Russia’s defence ministry on Saturday said that it had chased off a US submarine that it alleged had crossed into its territorial waters near the Kuril Islands in the northern Pacific.
The ministry said it had summoned the US defence attache in Moscow over the incident, while the Pentagon said only that it was aware of press reports.
‘Any day now’
Washington on Friday issued its most dire warning yet that Russia had assembled enough forces to launch a serious assault.
“Our view that military action could occur any day now, and could occur before the end of the Olympics, is only growing in terms of its robustness,” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned.
Ukrainian leaders have been trying to talk down the prospects of an all-out war because of the damaging effect such fears were having on the country’s teetering economy and public morale.
But the mood across the country remained tense.
The mayor’s office in Kyiv announced that it had prepared an emergency evacuation plan for the capital’s three million residents as a precaution.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is due to travel to Kyiv on Monday and then visit Putin as Europe strives to keep lines of communication open with Moscow.
Russia is seeking binding security guarantees from the West that include a pledge to roll NATO forces out of Eastern Europe and never expand into Ukraine.
Washington has flatly rejected the demands while offering to discuss a new European disarmament agreement with Moscow.