US President Joe Biden and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have reiterated their commitment to diplomacy to ease tensions, as the US national security adviser warned that Moscow was looking to find a “pretext” for the attack.
“President Biden made clear that the United States would respond swiftly and decisively, together with its allies and partners, to any further Russian aggression against Ukraine,” the White House said on Sunday.
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Zelenskyy’s office said the two leaders had discussed potential economic sanctions against Russia should it invade its western neighbour.
Earlier, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CBS News that over the past 10 days, there has been a “dramatic acceleration” in the buildup of Russian forces and that they “could launch a military action, essentially at any time”.
“We also are watching very carefully for the possibility that there is a pretext or a false flag operation to kick off the Russian action in which Russian intelligence services conduct some kind of attack on Russian proxy forces in eastern Ukraine or on Russian citizens, and then blame it on the Ukrainians,” Sullivan said.
Russia, which has amassed 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, says it’s not planning a military operation but has demanded that Ukraine not be allowed to become a part of the NATO military alliance. The Kremlin believes NATO expansion in eastern Europe threatens its security.
No diplomatic breakthrough
Biden was among a series of leaders to assure Zelenskyy of their support. In a phone call on Sunday evening, Biden told Zelenksyy that the US remained committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
During the phone call, Zelenskyy invited Biden to visit Ukraine, the presidential office said.
“I’m convinced that your arrival in Kyiv in the coming days, which are crucial for stabilising the situation, will be a powerful signal and contribute to de-escalation,” the presidential office quoted Zelenskyy as saying in a statement.
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Kyiv, said Zelenskyy has been urging for calm amid the uncertainty in the capital.
“[He has been] urging people not to panic even though each hour seems to bring something that fuels anxiety,” Butler said.
The US warnings, denounced by the Kremlin as “peak hysteria”, come as diplomatic efforts to prevent Russian aggression have failed to yield a breakthrough.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will be the latest Western leader to meet the Ukrainian president and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in an effort to de-escalate the situation. He will touch down in Kyiv on Monday before going to Moscow on Tuesday, bringing warnings of immediate sanctions if Russia invades.
“He is likely to say to Zelenskyy that he is bringing all the sport of European powers for Ukraine’s sovereignty; it’s a message he has given many times before. He’s said it is absolutely essential that war is avoided,” Butler said.
Fears of an invasion grow
As fears of an invasion grow, staff of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have started pulling out of the rebel-held Ukrainian city of Donetsk.
The OSCE has overseen a civilian monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine since 2014, when war broke out between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed rebels.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry slammed calls for OSCE observers to leave.
“This decision must cause us serious concern,” ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Sunday evening.
“The mission is being deliberately drawn into the militaristic psychosis fomented by Washington and used as a tool for possible provocation.”
Meanwhile, Russian military drills near Ukraine’s border have been intensifying in recent weeks.
The presence of Russian forces has been the largest on Belarusian soil since the end of the Cold War. NATO considers the war games a serious threat and a possible starting point for a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen reporting from the Zyabrovka airfield in Belarus, near the border with Ukraine, said that the “south of Belarus looks like a Russian military zone”.
“There are a lot of questions about the exact size and the real purpose of these exercises happening around 20km from the border with Ukraine,” Vaessen said.
“For sure, Russian forces are a lot more active this close to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, than they have been since the end of the Cold War. But for many here, it’s hard to believe that war is imminent.”