Leaders launch last-ditch diplomacy as Ukraine-Russia tensions ‘on the edge of a precipice’

The Kremlin signaled on Monday that it was ready to continue discussing with the West the security issues that led to the current Ukraine crisis, raising hopes that Russia would not invade its embattled neighbor within days, as the United States and Europe fear him more and more.

Questions remain, however, about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions. And countries across Europe are evacuating diplomats and on high alert for a possible impending war amid the worst East-West tensions since the Cold War.

On a final diplomatic trip, the German Chancellor said there was “no reasonable reason” for the buildup of more than 130,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s northern, southern and eastern borders. is, and he called for more dialogue. The British Prime Minister said Europe was “on the edge of a precipice”, but added: “There is still time for President Putin to take a step back”.

Despite warnings from Washington, London and elsewhere that Russian troops could move on Ukraine at any moment, Monday’s meeting between Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested otherwise.

During the session with Putin, Lavrov argued that Moscow should hold more talks with the United States and its allies despite their refusal to consider Russia’s key security demands.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Monday. (Alexei Nikolskly/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/Associated Press)

Moscow, which denies plans to invade Ukraine, wants Western guarantees that NATO will not allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to become members.

He also wants the alliance to halt arms deployments in Ukraine and withdraw its forces from Eastern Europe – demands flatly rejected by the West.

The talks “cannot go on forever, but I would suggest continuing and expanding them at this stage,” Lavrov said, noting that Washington has offered to hold a dialogue on the limits of missile deployments in Europe, the restrictions on military exercises and other confidence-building measures. -construction measures. He said the possibilities for talks “are far from exhausted”.

His comments, in an orchestrated appearance for television cameras, seemed intended to send a message to the world about Putin’s own position: that hopes for a diplomatic solution are not yet dead.

Putin noted that the West might try to drag Russia into “endless talks” without conclusive results and wondered if there was still a chance to reach an agreement on Moscow’s main demands. Lavrov replied that his ministry would not allow the United States and its allies to block major Russian demands.

A Russian jet fighter is seen during joint military exercises with the Belarusian Air Force in Belarusian airspace in this still image taken from video released on Monday. (Russian Defense Ministry/Reuters)

In a phone call on Sunday, US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to continue promoting both deterrence and diplomacy.

Zelensky’s office also quoted him as suggesting that a quick visit from Biden would help — a possibility that was not mentioned in the White House call summary. Such a visit would be unlikely as the United States now operates with skeleton diplomatic staff in Kyiv.

“It’s getting harder and harder to keep calm”

Ukrainian Security and Defense Council chief Oleksiy Danilov downplayed the threat of invasion but warned of the risk of “internal destabilization” by unspecified forces.

“Today we do not see that a large-scale offensive by the Russian Federation can take place either on [Feb.] On the 16th or 17th,” he told reporters after meeting lawmakers. “We are aware of the risks that exist on the territory of our country. But the situation is absolutely under control.”

As if to show defiance, Zelensky said Wednesday would be a “day of national unity”, calling on the country to display the blue and yellow flags and sing the national anthem in the face of “hybrid threats”.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gestures during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Kyiv on Monday. (Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)

“Our country today is stronger than ever. This is not the first threat that the strong Ukrainian people are facing,” Zelensky said Monday evening in a video address to the nation. “We are calm. We are strong. We are together. A great nation in a great country.”

The country is nevertheless preparing. Kyiv residents received letters from the mayor urging them to “defend your city” and signs appeared in apartment buildings pointing to the nearest bomb shelter. The mayor says the capital has around 4,500 such sites, including underground car parks, metro stations and basements.

Dr. Tamara Ugrich said she stocked up on cereals and canned goods and packed an emergency suitcase.

Members of Ukrainian border guards at the Three Sisters border crossing between Ukraine, Russia and Belarus on Monday. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

“I don’t believe in war, but on TV the tension is rising every day – and it’s getting harder and harder to keep calm. The more we’re told not to panic, the more nervous people get,” he said. she declared.

Others took the advice of Ukrainian leaders not to panic. Street music flooded Maidan’s central square on Sunday evening and the crowds danced. “I feel calm. You always have to be ready for anything, and then you won’t have anything to worry about,” said model Alona Buznitskaya.

On the front line of Ukraine’s long-running conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east, Ukrainian soldiers said shelling from the rebel-held area had increased over the past three days. But they said they were used to it and weren’t worried about an imminent incursion.

“No alternative to diplomacy”

In what could be a crucial week for Europe’s security, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Ukraine before heading to Moscow for talks with Putin on a high-stakes diplomatic foray.

After meeting Zelensky, Scholz urged Russia to show signs of de-escalation and reiterated unspecified threats to Russia’s financial situation if it invaded.

“There is no valid reason for such a military deployment,” Scholz said. “Nobody should doubt the determination and the preparation of the EU, NATO, Germany and the United States”, in the event of a military offensive.

PICTURES | Germany sends troops, military vehicles to Lithuania:

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres spoke with Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, stressing “there is no alternative to diplomacy”.

NATO countries have also reinforced their forces in Eastern Europe and offered assistance.

The German military said the first of 350 additional troops it was sending to bolster NATO forces in Lithuania was sent on Monday, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada would provide a $500 million loan dollars to Ukraine – in addition to a previously announced $120 million loan – and says it will also provide $7.8 million worth of lethal equipment.

WATCH | Trudeau announces more support for Ukraine:

Trudeau announces increased support for Ukraine in response to growing tension in the region

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said Canada will provide weapons and increased financial support to Ukraine in response to the threat of Russian aggression. 1:10

The United States and its NATO allies have repeatedly warned that Russia will pay a high price for any invasion, but they have sometimes struggled to present a united front.

Scholz’s government, in particular, has been criticized for refusing to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine or specify what sanctions it supports, raising questions about Berlin’s resolve. No new details emerged from his visit to Kyiv.

So far, NATO warnings seem to have had little effect: Russia has only reinforced troops and weapons in the region and launched massive exercises in its ally Belarus, which is also neighbor of Ukraine. The West fears the drills, which run until Sunday, could be used by Moscow as cover for an invasion from the north.

Russia has repeatedly dismissed concerns, saying it has the right to deploy forces on its territory.

The Ukrainian “dream” of NATO

A possible way out emerged this week: Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, raised the possibility that Ukraine would suspend its NATO bid – a goal enshrined in its constitution – if it avoided the war with Russia.

“We could – especially be threatened like this, blackmailed and pressured into doing it,” Prystaiko told BBC Radio 5.

On Monday, Prystaiko seemed to walk away from that. Some lawmakers have called for Prystaiko’s removal – but the fact the idea has been raised suggests it is being discussed behind closed doors.

Pressed on Monday on Ukraine’s ambitions within NATO, the Ukrainian president remained vague, calling them a “dream”.

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