Biden warns Putin that the US will respond ‘decisively’ if Russia invades Ukraine


President Biden warned Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Saturday that the United States would “respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs” if Moscow attacked Ukraine, the White House said, as the US government ordered the evacuation of the largest some of his staff from his embassy in Kiev. amid dire signs, an invasion was imminent.

The hour-long call was one of several US officials held with their Russian counterparts on Saturday as they sought to prevent a Russian attack on their neighbor and former Soviet republic. The discussions came as the US government offered increasingly urgent assessments of the situation in recent days, with a senior administration official telling reporters on Saturday that it appeared the two countries were headed “towards some point.” type of active conflict.

Warning all Americans to evacuate Ukraine, the official said: “This is not just the time to leave Ukraine. It is time for private citizens to leave.”

The White House said Biden wrapped up his call with Putin at 9:06 a.m. Pacific time. Russian officials had originally proposed that the pair speak on Monday, but the White House convinced Moscow to move forward with talks.

Biden “reiterated that a further Russian invasion of Ukraine would produce widespread human suffering and diminish Russia’s standing,” the White House said.

The president and Western leaders have promised to impose harsh economic sanctions on Russia if it attacks.

Putin has ordered the concentration of more than 100,000 soldiers on the Ukrainian border. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Friday that “Russia has all the forces it needs to carry out major military action.”

“Russia could choose, in a very short time, to start a major military action against Ukraine,” he added.

A senior administration official on Saturday described the Biden-Putin call as “professional and substantive” but said there was “no fundamental change in the dynamic that has been unfolding for several weeks.”

“We believe we have put on the table ideas that would be in our interest and that of our allies, that would enhance European security … and would also address some of Russia’s concerns,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss. the conversations.

“It is unclear whether Russia is interested in pursuing its goal diplomatically rather than through the use of force,” the official added, stressing that Biden intends to keep a diplomatic outlet open to Putin.

It was the first time the two leaders had spoken since late December. They spoke twice that month, first by videoconference Y then by phone. Officials from both sides met last month in Geneva. In recent days, Putin has met with other European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, like a host of NATO allies have tried to dissuade Putin from starting a war.

The Kremlin’s reaction reflected the gulf between the two countries. Yuri Ushakov, a foreign adviser to the Kremlin, told a news conference that the talk with Putin “took place in an atmosphere of unprecedented hysteria.”

In the call, the Kremlin said, Putin expressed concern about what he called “destructive” policies by Ukraine aimed at sabotaging the Minsk agreement, a 2015 deal to grant amnesty and autonomy to Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. .

However, the talk was “realistic,” Ushakov said, and the two leaders agreed to hold talks in the future.

“Joe Biden mentioned possible sanctions against Russia, which was expected given the tense situation around Ukraine,” Ushakov said. “At the same time, this topic was not at the center of the rather long conversation with the Russian leader.”

Biden’s call with Putin followed Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s on Saturday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “to discuss acute and shared concerns that Russia may be considering launching further military aggression against Ukraine.” in the coming days,” the State Department said. . “The secretary made it clear that he was still opening a diplomatic path to resolve the crisis.”

Blinken, who was traveling across the Pacific to meet with allies, told reporters that the United States “continued to see very worrying signs of Russian aggression.” He added that an invasion could take place at any time.

US officials had previously indicated that Putin might wait until the Winter Olympics are over on February 20 before starting a military strike to avoid angering China, which hosts the Games.

Underscoring the danger posed by a Russian attack, the State Department issued a travel advisory saying most American staff at the US Embassy in Kiev had been told to leave the country. He also ordered US citizens to leave as soon as possible.

The State Department ordered the “departure of most US direct-hire employees from the Embassy in Kiev due to the continuing threat of Russian military action,” the notice said. “US citizens should not travel to Ukraine, and those in Ukraine should depart immediately using commercial or other available private transportation options.”

The last US troops in Ukraine were also withdrawn from the country. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, who spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart on Saturday, ordered the withdrawal of 160 members of the Florida National Guard who had been advising the country’s troops since November, the Pentagon said in a statement. a statement. National Guard troops were withdrawn “out of an abundance of caution,” the Pentagon said, and will be redeployed elsewhere in Europe.

Ukraine’s military has reported that Russian-backed separatists have begun military exercises with artillery, tanks and armored vehicles in the eastern part of the country they control. The mobilization was the final piece in an almost total strangulation of the country led by Russia.

In addition to separatists and units stationed in Transnistria, just across the border from the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa, Russian troops are concentrated on Ukraine’s eastern and northeastern borders, and on its northern border of 674 miles with Belarus.

Russia has also assembled six warships and a submarine in the Black Sea as part of naval exercises there and in the Sea of ​​Azov.

Putin hoped that his steady buildup of forces on Ukraine’s borders would force the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to give him a guarantee that Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, would never become a NATO member.

Putin has long expressed disdain for Ukraine’s independence from Russia and the prospect of aligning itself more closely with the rest of Europe. His annexation of Crimea to Ukraine in 2014 drew global condemnation and economic sanctions from the West, but the punishment did not seem to dissuade him from contemplating another invasion.

The United States and other NATO members are privately reluctant to admit Ukraine, which would make the organization responsible for ensuring its military defense. But so far NATO leaders have remained steadfast in their refusal to give Putin such a guarantee, even though it could prevent an armed conflict, saying the decision will rest with Ukraine and NATO members, not Moscow.

Throughout their conversations with their Russian counterparts, Biden administration officials said that Putin’s stated security concerns about their country’s much smaller neighbor and his NATO demands are merely a pretext for an eventual invasion. .

Stokols and Wilber reported from Washington, Bulos from Odessa, and Wilkinson from Fiji.

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