Biden warns Putin that U.S. will respond ‘decisively’ if Russia invades Ukraine
President Biden warned Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Saturday that the U.S. would “respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs” if Moscow attacked Ukraine, the White House said, as the U.S. government ordered the evacuation of most of its personnel from its embassy in Kyiv amid dire signs an invasion was imminent.
The hourlong call was among several held by U.S. officials with their Russian counterparts on Saturday as they sought to forestall an attack by Russia on its neighbor and former Soviet republic. The discussions came as the U.S. government has 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 “toward some kind of active conflict.”
In warning all Americans to evacuate Ukraine, the official said: “It isn’t just time to leave Ukraine. It is past time for private citizens to leave.”
The White House said Biden concluded 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 up the 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 severe economic sanctions on Russia if it were to attack.
Putin has ordered the massing of more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border. U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters Friday that “Russia has all the forces it needs to conduct a major military action.”
“Russia could choose, in very short order, to commence 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 now for several weeks.”
“We believe that we have put ideas on the table that would be in our and our allies’ interests to pursue, that would enhance European security ... and would also address some of Russia’s concerns,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the talks.
“It remains unclear whether Russia is interested in pursuing its goal diplomatically as opposed to through the use of force,” the official added, emphasizing that Biden intends to keep a diplomatic offramp open to Putin.
It was the first time the two leaders had spoken since late December. They spoke twice that month, first by videoconference and 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, as 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 Kremlin foreign aide, said in a news briefing that the conversation with Putin “came amid an atmosphere of unprecedented hysteria.”
In the call, the Kremlin said, Putin voiced concerns about what he called Ukraine’s “destructive” policies aimed at sabotaging the Minsk agreement, a 2015 deal to grant amnesty and autonomy to Russian-backed separatists in the east of Ukraine.
Nevertheless, the conversation was “businesslike,” Ushakov said, and the two leaders agreed to have discussions in the future.
“Joe Biden mentioned possible anti-Russian sanctions, which was expected given the tense situation around Ukraine,” Ushakov said. “At the same time, this issue was not at the center of the fairly long conversation with the Russian leader.”
Biden’s call with Putin followed one by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken 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 clear that a diplomatic path to resolving the crisis remained open.”
Blinken, traveling throughout the Pacific for meetings with allies, told reporters that the U.S. was “continuing to see very troubling signs of Russian aggression.” He added that an invasion could take place at any time.
U.S. officials had previously indicated that Putin might wait until the Winter Olympics concluded on Feb. 20 before beginning a military assault in order to avoid angering China, which is hosting the Games.
Underscoring the danger posed by a Russian attack, the State Department issued a travel advisory that said most American staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv had been told to leave the country. It also directed U.S. citizens to depart as soon as possible.
The State Department has ordered the “departure of most U.S. direct hire employees from Embassy Kyiv due to the continued threat of Russian military action,” the advisory said. “U.S. citizens should not travel to Ukraine, and those in Ukraine should depart immediately using commercial or other privately available transportation options.”
The last U.S. troops in Ukraine were also pulled out of the country. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, who spoke by phone Saturday with his Russian counterpart, 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. The National Guard troops were removed in “an abundance of caution,” the Pentagon said, and will be redeployed elsewhere in Europe.
Biden and Germany’s new chancellor sought to project a united front to deter Russia from invading Ukraine, but differences remain if there is an attack.
Ukraine’s military has reported that Russian-backed separatists have begun military drills involving artillery, tank and armored vehicles in the eastern part of the country that they control. The mobilization was the final piece in an almost total Russian-led chokehold of the country.
Aside from the separatists and units stationed in Transnistria, just over the border from the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa, Russian troops are massed on Ukraine’s eastern and northeastern frontiers, and on its 674-mile northern border with Belarus.
Russia has also assembled six warships and a submarine in the Black Sea as part of naval drills there and in the Sea of Azov.
Plenty of residents of Kyiv don’t seem to think their capital is on borrowed time, but some are girding for a potential Russian invasion anyway.
Putin had hoped that his steady buildup of forces on Ukraine’s borders would compel the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to give him a guarantee that Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, would never be granted NATO membership.
Putin has long expressed disdain for Ukraine’s independence from Russia and the prospect of its aligning itself more closely with the rest of Europe. His annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 drew global condemnation and economic sanctions from the West, but the punishment has not seemed to deter him from contemplating another invasion.
The U.S. and other NATO members are privately reluctant to admit Ukraine, which would make the organization responsible for guaranteeing its military defense. But thus far NATO leaders have held firm in their refusal to give Putin such a guarantee, even though it could avert an armed conflict, stating that the decision will be up to Ukraine and NATO members, not dictated by Moscow.
Throughout their talks with their Russian counterparts, Biden administration officials said that Putin’s avowed security concerns about his country’s much smaller neighbor and his demands from NATO 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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