With the risk of war looming larger, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. 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.
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 neighbouring 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 U.S. picked up intelligence that Russia is looking at Wednesday as a target date, according to a U.S. 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 U.S. does not know with certainty whether Putin is committed to invasion.
However, U.S. 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 complained 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.
The closely watched call between Biden and Putin began at 11:04 a.m. EST, the White House said. Biden conducted the call from Camp David.
Biden has said the U.S. military will not enter a war in Ukraine, but he has promised severe economic sanctions against Moscow, in concert with international allies.
U.S. 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.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, also held telephone discussions on Saturday.
U.K. 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 U.S. citizens should depart the country as well.
Further U.S.-Russia tensions arose on Saturday when the Defense Ministry summoned the U.S. 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 U.S. troops to Poland to reassure allies.
Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Americans in Ukraine should not expect the U.S. 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.
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