Russian missile attacks on residential areas killed at least 19 people in a Ukrainian town near Odesa early Friday, authorities reported. The airstrikes pierced the cautious relief expressed a day earlier after Russian forces withdrew from a Black Sea island where they could have staged an assault on the city with Ukraine’s biggest port. Video of the pre-dawn attack showed the charred remains of buildings in the small town of Serhiivka, located about 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of Odesa. The Ukrainian president’s office said three X-22 missiles fired by Russian bombers struck an apartment building and two campsites. “A terrorist country is killing our people. In response to defeats on the battlefield, they fight civilians,” Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said. Large numbers of civilians died in Russian strikes and shelling earlier in the war, including at a hospital, a theater used as a bomb shelter and a train station. Until this week, mass casualties involving residents appeared to become more infrequent as Moscow concentrated on capturing eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Asked about Friday’s strike, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated Moscow’s claim that it wasn’t targeting residential areas during the war, which is now in its fifth month. The Russian military is trying to strike munitions depots, weapon repair factories and troop training facilities, he said. Ukraine’s Security Service said 19 people died, including two children. It said another 38, including six children and a pregnant woman, were hospitalized with injuries. Most of the victims were in the apartment building, Ukrainian emergency officials said. The airstrikes followed the pullout of Russian forces from Snake Island on Thursday, a move that was expected to potentially ease the threat to nearby Odesa, home to Ukraine’s biggest port. The island sits along a busy shipping lane. Read: Russia takes small cities, aims to widen east Ukraine battle Russia took control of it in the opening days of the war in the apparent hope of using it as a staging ground for an assault on Odesa. The Kremlin portrayed the departure of Russian troops from Snake Island as a “goodwill gesture” intended to facilitate shipments of grain and other agricultural products to Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world. Ukraine’s military claimed a barrage of its artillery and missiles forced the Russians to flee in two small speedboats. The exact number of withdrawing troops was not disclosed. The island took on significance early in the war as a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion. Ukrainian troops there reportedly received a demand from a Russian warship to surrender or be bombed. The answer supposedly came back, “Go (expletive) yourself.” Zelenskyy said that although the pullout did not guarantee the Black Sea region’s safety, it would “significantly limit” Russian activities there. “Step by step, we will push (Russia) out of our sea, our land, our sky,” he said in his nightly address. In eastern Ukraine, Russian forces kept up their push to encircle the last stronghold of resistance in Luhansk, one of two provinces that make up the Donbas region. Moscow-backed separatists have controlled much of the region for eight years. Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said the Russians were trying to encircle the city of Lysychansk and fighting for control over an oil refinery on the city’s edge. “The shelling of the city is very intensive,” Haidai told The Associated Press. “The occupiers are destroying one house after another with heavy artillery and other weapons. Residents of Lysychansk are hiding in basements almost round the clock.” Read: Russia may be in Ukraine to stay after 100 days of war The offensive has failed so far to cut Ukrainian supply lines, although the main highway leading west was not being used because of constant Russian shelling, the governor said. “The evacuation is impossible,” he added. But Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Friday that Russian and Luhansk separatist forces had taken control of the refinery as well as a mine and a gelatin factory in Lysychansk “over the last three days.” Ukraine’s presidential office said a series of Russian strikes in the past 24 hours also killed civilians in eastern Ukraine - four in the northeastern Kharkiv region and another four in Donetsk province. In other developments, Zelenskyy asked Ukrainian lawmakers to fast track the legislation needed for the country to join the European Union. His government applied for EU membership after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. EU leaders made Ukraine a candidate for membership last week, acting with unusual speed and unity. The process could take years or even decades, but Zelenskyy said in a speech to lawmakers that Ukraine can’t wait. “We needed 115 days to receive the status of a EU candidate. Our path to a full-fledged membership mustn’t take decades,” he said. “You may be aware that some of your decisions will not be met with applause, but such decisions are necessary for Ukraine to advance on its path forward, and you must make them.” In Moscow on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin briefed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the conflict in Ukraine. A Kremlin statement said Putin blamed Zelenskyy’s administration and Ukraine’s Western supporters for allegedly trying “to escalate the crisis and disrupt efforts to resolve it politically and diplomatically.” Putin has denied that Russian forces targeted a shopping mall where Ukrainian authorities said a missile strike Monday killed at least 19 people and injured another 62. He claimed Thursday that the target in Kremenchuk, a city in central Ukraine, was a nearby weapons depot and that the Russian military does not take aim at places occupied by civilians.
One hundred days into the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the deadly crisis with global repercussions still shows no sign of easing off. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, his country's special military operation in Donbass starting on Feb. 24 was launched in response to the fundamental threats posed by NATO and the bloc's eastward expansion. The global community has since been closely monitoring how the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues to remodel the global economy, energy landscape as well as diplomatic and military ties. Russian officials have repeatedly stressed that the special military operation would continue until all its objectives are met, while Ukraine has vowed to "fight till the end." In this context, the West's ever-increasing military aid to Ukraine and unprecedented pressure on Moscow have strongly exacerbated the situation, and created barriers to future peace talks. With both Russia and Ukraine adhering to different negotiation positions, the prospect of peace remains elusive. CHANGES ON THE GROUND Following the end of the battle in Mariupol, with Russia taking control of the Azovstal steel plant and the city, both sides shifted their military focus to the northeastern part of the Donetsk region, and the western part of the Lugansk region. The current military action is centered around two strategically important cities in the Lugansk region, namely Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. The Ukrainian side has confirmed that heavy fighting continued in Severodonetsk. The head of the Lugansk regional military administration Sergei Haidai recently said that Russia was gaining control of most of the city, while Ukrainian forces were still showing resistance. During his visit to the frontline in Kharkiv region on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country's troops were facing an extremely difficult situation. In a Telegram post following the visit, the Ukrainian leader said his country would "defend its land till the very end" and "would fight and definitely win." In a more recent address to the Luxembourg parliament on Thursday, Zelensky said that Russian forces controlled around 20 percent of Ukrainian territory. Meanwhile, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu confirmed that Moscow's military operation would continue despite Western pressure and increased Western assistance to Kiev. Russian military expert Aleksei Leonkov believes that the Ukrainian army has already suffered defeat in the battle for Donbass and that Kiev's efforts on the battlefield have not led to any tangible results. According to Igar Tyskevich, an analyst at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, Russia's full control of the Donbass region would not be feasible in the short term, and that it would be difficult to predict how long this conflict would last. RUSSIA-UKRAINE PEACE TALKS AT A STANDSTILL While there are noticeable developments on the battlefield, the same cannot be said about the current state of the negotiation process between Russia and Ukraine. The prospect of peace remains bleak, as talks were put on hold following a controversial incident in Bucha in April. Russian officials said that Moscow was willing to continue diplomatic talks, despite Ukraine's constant urge to deviate from previous agreements. After sending draft proposals to Kiev in April, Russia said the "ball was now in Ukraine's court." Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Zelensky said that Russian forces must return to positions held before the start of the conflict for diplomatic talks to continue. Deputy Chairman of Russia's Security Council Dmitry Medvedev said such conditions were "impossible in principle." World leaders have nonetheless continued to pursue mediation efforts. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have held multiple telephone conversations with Putin to discuss the Ukrainian crisis and the peace talks. Turkey, which has expressed its desire to play a mediating role in the conflict and has already hosted a round of Russia-Ukraine talks, recently expressed readiness to host a new round of negotiations. Also Read: Russian missile hits western Lviv; 5 injured Nevertheless, none of the current efforts have led to a successful revival of the talks because of stark differences in the negotiation positions of both sides. Russia has already begun strengthening its presence in southern and eastern Ukraine, including simplifying the procedures for residents in the Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions in southern Ukraine to apply for Russian citizenship. Some Russian analysts agree that it is pointless to continue negotiations with Zelensky on key political matters. Alexander Perendzhiev, a Russian political and military analyst, has said that Zelensky is merely a puppet of the West, and the West itself is not ready for serious negotiations. Tyskevich, the analyst at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, believes the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has escalated into a "long-term war" and the "active phase" may last for several months or even longer, and the next key step would be to discuss the necessary conditions for a ceasefire agreement. However, even if a truce is reached, according to the expert, it would be very fragile. WESTERN INVOLVEMENT Instead of promoting peace talks and a rapid end to the conflict, the United States and its Western allies have continued to exert pressure on Russia, ramp up sanctions, and provide military assistance to Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday that the United States would supply Ukraine with advanced rocket systems that Kiev had requested. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry has also announced recently that the country was receiving Harpoon anti-ship missile systems from Denmark, Britain, and the Netherlands to defend itself in the Black Sea, while other countries will also supply defense equipment in the near future. In a bid to contain Russia even further, European Union leaders have recently agreed to ban "more than two thirds" of Russian oil imports to the bloc, as they adopted their sixth package of sanctions against Russia. The Kremlin has repeatedly stressed that by supplying heavy weapons to Ukraine, the United States was deliberately "adding fuel to the fire" and hindering a potential resumption of peace talks. In recent telephone conversations with European leaders, Putin pointed out that the supply of weapons would further destabilize the situation and worsen the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. Russian political scientist Karine Gevorgyan noted that by providing Ukraine with an unlimited supply of weapons, the West risks depleting its own arsenals. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned that the West is fighting a proxy war against Russia, using Ukraine as the battlefield. If the West finally recovers from its "anti-Russian frenzy" and decides it wants to restore relations, Moscow would seriously consider whether or not it needs to re-establish these ties, said Lavrov.
Some airlines canceled flights to the Ukrainian capital and troops there unloaded fresh shipments of weapons from NATO members Sunday, as its president sought to project confidence in the face of U.S. warnings of possible invasion within days by a growing number of Russian forces. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke to President Joe Biden for about an hour, insisting that Ukrainians had the country under “safe and reliable protection” against feared attack by a far stronger Russian military, aides said afterward. The White House said both agreed to keep pushing both deterrence and diplomacy to try to stave off a feared Russian military offensive. The Biden administration has become increasingly outspoken about its concerns that Russia will stage an incident in the coming days that would create a false pretext for an invasion of Ukraine. U.S. and European intelligence findings in recent days have sparked worries that Russia may try to target a scheduled Ukrainian military exercise slated for Tuesday in eastern Ukraine to launch such a “false-flag operation,” according to two people familiar with the matter. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about it. Read: War, peace, stalemate? Week ahead may decide Ukraine’s fate American intelligence officials believe targeting the military exercise is just one of multiple options that Russia has weighed as a possibility for a false-flag operation. The White House has underscored that they do not know with certainty if President Vladimir Putin has made a final determination to launch an invasion. Moscow’s forces are massing on Ukraine’s north, east and south in what the Kremlin insists are military exercises. A U.S. official updated the Biden administration’s estimate for how many Russian forces are now staged near Ukraine’s borders to more than 130,000, up from the more than 100,000 the U.S. has cited publicly in previous weeks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s conclusions. Zelenskyy has repeatedly played down the U.S. warnings, questioning the increasingly strident statements from U.S. officials in recent days that Russia could be planning to invade as soon as midweek. “We understand all the risks, we understand that there are risks,” he said in a broadcast Saturday. “If you, or anyone else, has additional information regarding a 100% Russian invasion starting on the 16th, please forward that information to us.” But while Zelenskyy has urged against panic that he fears could undermine Ukraine’s economy, he and his civilian and military leaders also are preparing defenses, soliciting and receiving a flow of arms from the U.S. and other NATO members. A military cargo aircraft carrying U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and ammunition from NATO member Lithuania landed Sunday, bolstering the country’s defenses against any attack by air. Zelenskyy wore military olive drab at a drill with tanks and helicopters near Ukraine’s border with Russian-annexed Crimea this weekend. In the nearby city of Kalanchak, some expressed disbelief that Putin would really send his troops rolling into the country. “I don’t believe Russia will attack us,” said resident Boris Cherepenko. “I have friends in Sakhalin, in Krasnodar,” he said, naming Russian regions. “I don’t believe it.” In Kyiv, others expressed uncertainty whether any Russian move would be economic, military, or happen at all. One woman, Alona Buznitskaya, speaking on a central street of the capital bearing a few signs declaring, “I love Ukraine,” said she was calm. “You should always be ready for everything, and then you will have nothing to be afraid of,” she said. The U.S. largely has not made public the evidence it says is underlying its most specific warnings on possible Russian planning or timing. “We’re not going to give Russia the opportunity to conduct a surprise here, to spring something on Ukraine or the world,” Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, told CNN on Sunday, about the U.S. warnings. “We are going to make sure that we are laying out for the world what we see as transparently and plainly as we possibly can,” he said. The Russians have deployed missile, air, naval and special operations forces, as well as supplies to sustain an invasion. This week, Russia moved six amphibious assault ships into the Black Sea, augmenting its capability to land on the coast. Putin denies any intention of attacking Ukraine. Russia is demanding that the West keep former Soviet countries out of NATO. It also wants NATO to refrain from deploying weapons near its border and to roll back alliance forces from Eastern Europe — demands flatly rejected by the West. Biden and Putin spoke for more than an hour Saturday, but the White House offered no suggestion that the call diminished the threat of an imminent war in Europe. Read:Biden warns Putin of ‘severe costs’ of Ukraine invasion Reflecting the West’s concerns, Dutch airline KLM has canceled flights to Ukraine until further notice, the company said. The Ukrainian charter airline SkyUp said Sunday its flight from Madeira, Portugal, to Kyiv was diverted to the Moldovan capital. And Ukraine’s air traffic safety agency Ukraerorukh issued a statement declaring the airspace over the Black Sea to be a “zone of potential danger” and recommended that planes avoid flying over the sea Feb. 14-19. The Putin-Biden conversation, following a call between Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron earlier in the day, came at a critical moment for what has become the biggest security crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War. U.S. officials believe they have mere days to prevent an invasion and enormous bloodshed in Ukraine. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will fly to Kyiv on Monday to meet with Zelenskyy and Moscow on Tuesday to meet with Putin. While the U.S. and NATO have made clear they do not intend to send troops to Ukraine to fight Russia, any invasion and resulting punishing sanctions promised by the U.S. and other countries could reverberate far beyond the former Soviet republic, affecting energy supplies, global markets and the power balance in Europe. The United States was pulling most of its staff from the embassy in Kyiv and urged all American citizens to leave Ukraine immediately. Britain joined other European nations in telling its citizens to leave. Biden has bolstered the U.S. military presence in Europe as reassurance to allies on NATO’s eastern flank. The 3,000 additional soldiers ordered to Poland come on top of 1,700 who are on their way there. The U.S. Army also is shifting 1,000 soldiers from Germany to Romania, which like Poland shares a border with Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter conflict since 2014, when Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly leader was driven from office by a popular uprising. Moscow responded by annexing the Crimean Peninsula and then backing a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has killed over 14,000 people. A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany helped halt large-scale battles, but regular skirmishes have continued, and efforts to reach a political settlement have stalled.
Even if a Russian invasion of Ukraine doesn’t happen in the next few days, the crisis is reaching a critical inflection point with European stability and the future of East-West relations hanging in the balance. A convergence of events over the coming week could determine whether the stalemate is resolved peacefully or Europe is at war. At stake are Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture and long-agreed limits on the deployment of conventional military and nuclear forces there. “This next 10 days or so will be critical,” said Ian Kelly, a retired career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Georgia who now teaches international relations at Northwestern University. The Biden administration on Friday said an invasion could happen at any moment, with a possible target date of Wednesday, according to intelligence picked up by the United States, and Washington was evacuating almost all of its embassy staff in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Read:Biden warns Putin of ‘severe costs’ of Ukraine invasion A phone call between President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Saturday did nothing to ease tensions. Biden and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, spoke on Sunday. Even before the latest U.S. warnings and diplomatic moves, analysts saw this as a critical week for the future of Ukraine. “Russia and the United States are approaching a peak of the conflict of their interests regarding a future shape of the European order,” Timofei Bordachev, said head of the Center for European Research at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “The parties may take action against each other that will go much farther than what was considered admissible quite recently,” he said in a recent analysis. In the week ahead, Washington and NATO are expecting Moscow’s formal response after they rejected its main security demands, and major Russian military drills in Belarus, conducted as part of a deployment near Ukraine, are to end. The fate of the Russian troops now in Belarus will be key to judging the Kremlin’s intentions. At the same time, the Winter Olympics in China, often cited as a potential deterrent to immediate Russian action, will conclude Feb. 20. Although U.S. officials have said they believe an invasion could take place before then, the date is still considered important. And an important international security conference is taking place in Munich next weekend, with Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and top European officials planning to attend. Putin has warned the West that he will not back down on his demand to keep Ukraine out of NATO. While Ukraine has long aspired to join, the alliance is not about to offer an invitation. Still, he contends that if Ukraine becomes a member and tries to use force to reclaim the Crimean Peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014, it would draw Russia and NATO into a conflict. His foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has asked Western nations to explain how they interpret the principle of the “indivisibility of security” enshrined in international agreements they signed. The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Friday that it would not accept a collective response from the European Union and NATO, insisting on an individual response from each country. Seeking to counter NATO’s argument that every nation is free to choose alliances, Moscow has charged that NATO violated the principle and jeopardized Russia’s security by expanding eastward. “Russia’s bold demands and equally blunt U.S. rejection of them have pushed the international agenda toward the confrontation more than ever since the height of the Cold War,” Bordachev said. He argued that closer relations with China have strengthened Moscow’s hand. “Whatever goals Russia could pursue now, it can plan its future in conditions of a full rupture of ties with the West,” Bordachev said. Russian officials have emphasized that negotiating a settlement over Ukraine depends squarely on the United States and that Western allies just march to Washington’s orders. In the past, Russia had sought to build close contacts with France and Germany in the hope that friendly ties with Europe’s biggest economies would help offset the U.S. pressure. But those ties were strained by the poisoning in 2020 of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who spent five months in Germany convalescing from what he described as a nerve agent attack he blamed on the Kremlin. Russia has denied its involvement. More recently, Russian officials have criticized the position of France and Germany in the deadlocked peace talks on eastern Ukraine, holding them responsible for the failure to persuade Ukrainian authorities to grant broad self-rule to the Russia-backed separatist region, as required by a 2015 agreement. In a break with diplomatic rules, the Russian Foreign Ministry last fall published confidential letters that Lavrov exchanged with his French and German counterparts in a bid to prove their failure to help make progress in talks. Read: Putin, Biden plan high-stakes phone call in Ukraine crisis Speaking after the latest fruitless round of those talks, Kremlin representative Dmitry Kozak bemoaned the failure by French and German envoys to persuade Ukraine to commit to a dialogue with the separatists, as the agreement stipulated. Despite the tensions with both Paris and Berlin, Putin spent more than five hours talking to French President Emmanuel Macron last Monday and will host German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday. Putin said he was grateful to Macron for trying to help negotiate a way to ease the tensions and said they would talk again. Moscow also just reopened a window for diplomatic contacts with Britain, hosting the foreign and defense secretaries for the first round of talks since ties were ruptured by the 2018 poisoning in Britain of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Lavrov’s meeting with Liz Truss was frosty, but British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace’s talks with Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, appeared more businesslike, with the parties emphasizing the need to maintain regular contact to reduce the threat of military incidents.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday that Russia could invade Ukraine “any day,” launching a conflict that would come at an “enormous human cost.” The senior adviser to President Joe Biden offered another stark warning the day after U.S. officials confirmed that Russia has assembled at least 70% of the military firepower it likely intends to have in place by mid-month to give President Vladimir Putin the option of launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “If war breaks out, it will come at an enormous human cost to Ukraine, but we believe that based on our preparations and our response, it will come at a strategic cost to Russia as well,” Sullivan said. Sullivan did not directly address reports that the White House has briefed lawmakers that a full Russian invasion could lead to the quick capture of Kyiv and potentially result in as many as 50,000 casualties as he made appearances on a trio of Sunday talk shows. Read:Russian bombers fly over Belarus amid Ukraine tensions U.S. officials, who discussed internal assessments of the Russian buildup on the condition that they not be identified, sketched out a series of indicators suggesting that Putin intends to start an invasion in the coming weeks, although the size and scale are unclear. They stressed that a diplomatic solution appears to remain possible. Among those military indicators: an exercise of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces that usually is held each fall was rescheduled for mid-February to March. That coincides with what U.S. officials see as the most likely window for invasion. The administration has stepped up warnings in recent days that Russia increasingly seems intent on further invading Ukrainian territory. Last week, Biden administration officials said that intelligence findings showed that the Kremlin had worked up an elaborate plot to fabricate an attack by Ukrainian forces that Russia could use as a pretext to take military action against its neighbor. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that the scheme included production of a graphic propaganda video that would show staged explosions and use corpses and actors depicting grieving mourners. “It could happen as soon as tomorrow or it could take some weeks yet,” Sullivan said. He added that Putin “has put himself in a position with military deployments to be able to act aggressively against Ukraine at any time now.” Sullivan said that the administration held on to hope that the Russians would move to de-escalate the situation through diplomacy. “The key thing is that the United States needs to be and is prepared for any of those contingencies and in lockstep with our allies and partners,” Sullivan said. “We have reinforced and reassured our allies on the eastern flank.” Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, attended a classified briefing last week that administration officials gave to members of Congress. He was asked whether he came away from the briefing thinking it was certain that Russia would move on Ukraine. “I would say the conditions are there. It’s more likely than not. I think the noose is being prepared. It’s around Ukraine right now as we speak. These are dangerous times,” McCaul said. Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said the administration was still seeking a diplomatic solution, but “at the same time, we know that the Russians continue to prepare, and we will be working to address the security issues.” Sen. John Barrasso, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Ukraine was the first part of Putin’s plan to reassemble the Soviet Union. He worried about what signal that could send to U.S. adversaries. “He needs to choke on trying to swallow Ukraine because if it’s easy pickings for him, my worry is that then China moves against Taiwan and Iran moves quickly to a nuclear weapon.” Meanwhile, elite U.S troops and equipment landed Sunday in southeastern Poland near the border with Ukraine following Biden’s orders to deploy 1,700 soldiers there amid fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Hundreds more troops from the 82nd Airborne Division are expected to arrive at the Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport. A U.S. Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster plane brought a few dozen troops and vehicles. Read: Russia at 70 percent of Ukraine military buildup Their commander is Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, who on Aug. 30 was the last American soldier to leave Afghanistan. “Our national contribution here in Poland shows our solidarity with all of our allies here in Europe and, obviously, during this period of uncertainty we know that we are stronger together,” Donahue said at the airport. Biden ordered additional U.S. troops deployed to Poland, Romania and Germany to demonstrate America’s commitment to NATO’s eastern flank amid the tensions between Russia and Ukraine. NATO’s eastern member Poland borders both Russia and Ukraine. Romania borders Ukraine. The division can rapidly deploy within 18 hours and conduct parachute assaults to secure key objectives. Based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the division’s history goes back to 1917. Biden is set to meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Monday at the White House. Scholz has said that Moscow would pay a “high price” in the event of an attack, but his government’s refusal to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, bolster its troop presence in eastern Europe or spell out which sanctions it would support against Russia has drawn criticism abroad and at home. French President Emmanuel Macron was to arrive Monday in Moscow for talks with Putin, and in the days to come, Scholz will be there, too. Biden and Macron spoke by phone on Sunday, discussing “diplomatic and deterrence efforts in response to Russia’s continued military build-up on Ukraine’s borders,” according to the White House. Sullivan expressed certainty that operation of the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline “will not move forward” if Russia further invades Ukraine. Construction of the pipeline is complete, but gas is not yet flowing. “While it’s true that Germany has not sent arms to Ukraine, after the United States, they are the second largest donor to Ukraine in Europe,” Sullivan said. “The great thing ... about having the kind of alliances we have with 30 NATO allies is that different allies are going to take different pieces of this.” Sullivan appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” NBC’s “Meet the Press” and ABC’s “This Week.” McCaul spoke on ABC, and Barrasso was on Fox. Thomas-Greenfield was on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
President Joe Biden is ordering 2,000 U.S.-based troops to Poland and Germany and shifting 1,000 more from Germany to Romania, demonstrating to both allies and foes America’s commitment to NATO’s eastern flank amid fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Pentagon said Wednesday. Russia fired back with a sharply worded objection, calling the deployments unfounded and “destructive.” Russian President Vladimir Putin also had a new telephone exchange with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But readouts from both governments showed no progress, with Putin saying the West was giving no ground on Russia’s security concerns and Johnson expressing deep concern about Russia’s “hostile activity” on the Ukrainian border, referring to Putin’s buildup of 100,000 troops there. The Biden administration is aiming to demonstrate U.S. resolve without undermining efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Biden notably has not sent military reinforcements to the three Baltic countries on NATO’s eastern flank — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — that are former states of the Soviet Union. Read:Russian roar on Ukraine rings hollow to Latin America allies No U.S. troops are being sent to Ukraine, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday said the administration has stopped calling a Russian invasion “imminent,” because that word implies Washington knows Putin has made a decision to invade. Officials say Putin’s intentions remain unclear. However, increasing U.S. troop levels in Eastern Europe is exactly what Putin has said he finds intolerable, along with the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO. The U.S. already has several thousand troops in Poland, and Romania is host to a NATO missile defense system that Russia considers a threat. The U.S. presence in the region has increased since 2014 when Russia made its first invasion of Ukraine. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the soon-to-deploy U.S. forces are intended to temporarily bolster U.S. and allied defensive positions. “These are not permanent moves,” he said, stressing that the purpose is to reassure allies. Kirby said Russia had continued its buildup, even in the previous 24 hours, despite U.S. urgings that it deescalate. In Moscow, a senior official said the U.S. movements will complicate the crisis. “The unfounded destructive steps will only fuel military tensions and narrow the field for political decisions,” Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said in remarks carried by the Interfax news agency. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba again played down fears of a Russian attack in a call with reporters but said that if Russia makes moves that could signal an imminent invasion Ukraine would react as necessary. Of the 2,000 U.S. troops newly deploying from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, about 1,700 are members of the 82nd Airborne Division infantry brigade, who will go to Poland. The other 300 are with the 18th Airborne Corps and will go to Germany as what the Pentagon called a “joint task force-capable headquarters.” Poland’s Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak wrote on Twitter that the deployment to his country is “a strong signal of solidarity in response to the situation in Ukraine.” The 1,000 U.S. troops going to Romania are members of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment based at Vilseck, Germany. They will augment about 900 already in Romania, Kirby said. The cavalry deployment’s purpose is to “deter aggression and enhance our defensive capabilities in frontline allied states during this period of elevated risk,” the Pentagon said in a separate written statement. “It’s important that we send a strong signal to Mr. Putin and to the world” of the U.S commitment to NATO, Kirby said. He said France has decided it, too, will send troop reinforcements to Romania under NATO command, and he noted that a number of other European NATO countries are considering adding forces on NATO’s eastern flank. Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron touched base in a phone call Wednesday night. NATO has been beefing up its defenses around allies in Eastern Europe since late last year. Denmark, for example, said it was sending a frigate and F-16 warplanes to Lithuania, and Spain was sending four fighter jets to Bulgaria and three ships to the Black Sea to join NATO naval forces. The Netherlands plans to send two F-35 fighter aircraft to Bulgaria in April and is putting a ship and land-based units on standby for NATO’s Response Force. Read: Russia says US ignored its security demands over Ukraine Biden has said he will not put American troops in Ukraine to fight any Russian incursion, although the United States is supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend itself and seeking to reassure allies in Eastern Europe that Washington will fulfill its treaty obligation to defend them in the event they are attacked. Ukraine is not a NATO member, and therefore the U.S. has no treaty obligation to come to its defense. The military moves come amid stalled talks with Russia over its buildup at Ukraine’s borders. And they underscore growing fears across Europe that Russian President Putin is poised to invade Ukraine. Smaller NATO countries on the alliance’s eastern flank worry they could be next. The Pentagon also has put about 8,500 U.S.-based troops on higher alert for possible deployment to Europe as additional reassurance to allies, and officials have indicated the possibility that additional units could be placed on higher alert soon. The U.S. already has between 75,000 and 80,000 troops in Europe as permanently stationed forces and as part of regular rotations in places such as Poland. Washington and Moscow have been at loggerheads over Ukraine, with little sign of a diplomatic path forward. However, Kirby on Wednesday confirmed the validity of a document reported by a Spanish newspaper that indicated the United States could be willing to enter into an agreement with Russia to ease tensions over missile deployments in Europe if Moscow steps back from the brink in Ukraine. The daily El Pais published two documents that Kirby confirmed were written replies from the United States and NATO last week to Russia’s proposals for a new security arrangement in Europe. The U.S. State department declined to comment on them. In reference to the second document, NATO said that it never comments on “alleged leaks.” But the text closely reflects statements made to the media last week by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg as he laid out the 30-nation military organization’s position on Russia’s demands. The U.S. document, marked as a confidential “non-paper,” said the United States would be willing to discuss in consultation with its NATO partners “a transparency mechanism to confirm the absences of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Aegis Ashore sites in Romania and Poland.” That would happen on condition that Russia “offers reciprocal transparency measures on two ground-launched missiles bases of our choosing in Russia.” Aegis Ashore is a system for defending against short- or intermediate-range missiles. Russia argues the site in Romania could be easily adapted to fire cruise missiles instead of interceptors, a claim that Washington has denied. In his first public remarks on the standoff in more than a month, Putin on Tuesday accused the U.S. and its allies of ignoring Russia’s central security demands but said that Moscow is willing to keep talking. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, and in 2014 annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and provided military support for a pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. Around 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The U.S. worked Sunday to ramp up diplomatic and financial pressure on Russia over Ukraine, promising to put Moscow on the defensive at the U.N. Security Council as lawmakers on Capitol Hill said they were nearing agreement on “the mother of all sanctions.” The American ambassador to the United Nations said the Security Council will press Russia hard in a Monday session to discuss its massing of troops near Ukraine and fears it is planning an invasion. “Our voices are unified in calling for the Russians to explain themselves,” Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said of the U.S. and the other council members on ABC’s “This Week.” ”We’re going into the room prepared to listen to them, but we’re not going to be distracted by their propaganda.” Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin is bent on waging an “attack on democracy,” not just on a single country. It’s a case that some senior foreign policy figures have urged President Joe Biden to make, including at the Security Council. Read:Russian roar on Ukraine rings hollow to Latin America allies “If Ukraine will be further attacked by Russia, of course they will not stop in Ukraine,” Markarova said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Any formal action by the Security Council is extremely unlikely, given Russia’s veto power and its ties with others on the council, including China. But the U.S. referral of Russia’s troop buildup to the United Nations’ most powerful body gives both sides a stage in their fight for global opinion. Russia’s massing of an estimated 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine has brought increasingly strong warnings from the West that Moscow intends to invade. Russia is demanding that NATO promise never to allow Ukraine to join the alliance, and to stop the deployment of NATO weapons near Russian borders and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe. NATO and the U.S. call those demands impossible. The head of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, on Sunday rejected Western warnings about an invasion. “At this time, they’re saying that Russia threatens Ukraine — that’s completely ridiculous,” he was quoted as saying by state news agency Tass. “We don’t want war and we don’t need it at all.” Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, countered that on Twitter, saying: “If Russian officials are serious when they say they don’t want a new war, Russia must continue diplomatic engagement and pull back military forces.” The United States and European countries say a Russian invasion would trigger heavy sanctions. On Sunday, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, said that in the event of an attack, lawmakers want Russia to face “the mother of all sanctions.” That includes actions against Russian banks that could severely undermine the Russian economy and increased lethal aid to Ukraine’s military. The sanctions under consideration would apparently be significantly stronger than those imposed after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Those penalties have been seen as ineffective. Menendez also raised the prospect of imposing some punishments preemptively, before any invasion. “There are some sanctions that really could take place up front, because of what Russia’s already done — cyberattacks on Ukraine, false-flag operations, the efforts to undermine the Ukrainian government internally,” the New Jersey Democrat said on CNN. The desire to hit Russia harder financially over its moves on Ukraine has been a rare area of bipartisan agreement in Congress. But Republicans and Democrats have been divided over the timing of any new sanctions package. Many GOP members are pushing for the U.S. to impose tough penalties immediately instead of waiting for Russia to send new troops into Ukraine. The Biden administration and many Democratic lawmakers argue that imposing sanctions now against Putin would remove any deterrent to invasion. Sen. James Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN he is “more than cautiously optimistic” that Republicans and Democrats will be able to resolve their differences over the timing of sanctions. Russia has long resented NATO’s granting of membership to countries that were once part of the Soviet Union or were in its sphere of influence as members of the Warsaw Pact. Read:Russia says US ignored its security demands over Ukraine NATO “has already come close to Ukraine. They also want to drag this country there,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Sunday, “although everyone understands that Ukraine is not ready and could make no contribution to strengthening NATO security.” Ukraine has sought NATO membership for years, but any prospects of joining appear far off as the country struggles to find political stability and attack corruption. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and member of the Senate’s Ukraine Caucus, suggested that Ukraine’s backing off its NATO aspirations could expedite a diplomatic solution to the current crisis. If Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “decides that the future membership, if there’s to be one in NATO for Ukraine, and the question of the Russian occupation of Ukraine are two things to put on the table, I think we may move toward a solution to this,” Durbin said on NBC. Ukraine has not shown signs of willingness to make concessions on potential alliance membership. It is not clear whether Durbin’s suggestion has broader backing. Lavrov also underlined Russia’s contention that NATO expansion is a threat, saying the alliance has engaged in offensive actions outside its member countries. “It is difficult to call it defensive. Do not forget that they bombed Yugoslavia for almost three months, invaded Libya, violating the U.N. Security Council resolution, and how they behaved in Afghanistan,” he said. The U.S. and NATO have formally rejected Russia’s demands about halting NATO expansion, though Washington outlined areas where discussions are possible, offering hope there could be a way to avoid war.
The Biden administration and NATO told Russia on Wednesday there will be no U.S. or NATO concessions on Moscow’s main demands to resolve the crisis over Ukraine. In separate written responses delivered to the Russians, the U.S. and NATO held firm to the alliance’s open-door policy for membership, rejected a demand to permanently ban Ukraine from joining, and said allied deployments of troops and military equipment in Eastern Europe are nonnegotiable. “There is no change, there will be no change,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. Also not up for negotiation will be the U.S. and European response to any Russian invasion of Ukraine, he said, repeating the mantra that any such incursion would be met with massive consequences and severe economic costs. The responses were not unexpected and mirrored what senior U.S. and NATO officials have been saying for weeks. Nonetheless, they and the eventual Russian reaction to them could determine whether Europe will again be plunged into war. There was no immediate response from Russia but Russian officials have warned that Moscow would quickly take “retaliatory measures” if the U.S. and its allies reject its demands. Read: Russia toughens its posture amid Ukraine tensions Seeking possible off-ramps that would allow Russia to withdraw the estimated 100,000 troops it has deployed near Ukraine’s border without appearing to have lost a battle of wills, the U.S. response did outline areas in which some of Russia’s concerns might be addressed, provided it de-escalates tensions with Ukraine. Speaking to reporters in Washington, Blinken said Russia would not be surprised by the contents of the several-page American document that U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan delivered Wednesday to the Russian Foreign Ministry. “All told it sets out a serious diplomatic path forward. should Russia choose it,” he said. “The document we’ve delivered includes concerns of the United States and our allies and partners about Russia’s actions that undermine security, a principled and pragmatic evaluation of the concerns that Russia has raised, and our own proposals for areas where we may be able to find common ground.” Blinken said he hoped to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about the response in the coming days. But he stressed the decision about pursuing diplomacy or conflict rests with Russia and, more specifically, with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We’ll see how they respond,” he said. “But there’s no doubt in my mind that if Russia were to approach this seriously and in a spirit of reciprocity with a determination to enhance collective security for all of us, there are very positive things in this in this document that could be pursued. We can’t make that decision for President Putin.” Shortly after Blinken spoke, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels that the alliance had sent a separate reply to Russia with an offer to improve communications, examine ways to avoid military incidents or accidents, and discuss arms control. But, like Blinken, he rejected any attempt to halt membership. “We cannot and will not compromise on the principles on which the security of our alliance, and security in Europe and North America rest,” Stoltenberg said. “This is about respecting nations and their right to choose their own path.” “Russia should refrain from coercive force posturing, aggressive rhetoric and malign activities directed against allies and other nations. Russia should also withdraw its forces from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, where they are deployed without these countries’ consent,” he said. While flatly refusing to consider any changes to NATO’s open-door policy, its relationship with non-ally Ukraine, or allied troop and military deployments in Eastern Europe, Blinken said the U.S. is open to other ideas to ease Russia’s stated concerns. The U.S. proposals, echoed in the NATO document, include the potential for negotiations over offensive missile placements and military exercises in Eastern Europe as well as broad arms control agreements as long as Russia withdraws its troops from the Ukrainian border and agrees to halt inflammatory rhetoric designed to deepen divisions and discord among the allies and within Ukraine itself. Moscow has demanded guarantees that NATO will never admit Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations as members and that the alliance will roll back troop deployments in former Soviet bloc nations. Some of these, like the membership pledge, are nonstarters for the U.S. and its allies, creating a seemingly intractable stalemate that many fear can only end in a war. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied it has plans to attack Ukraine, but the U.S. and NATO are worried about Russia massing its troops near Ukraine and conducting a series of sweeping military maneuvers. As part of the drills, motorized infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russia practiced firing live ammunition, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea performed bombing runs, dozens of warships sailed for training exercises in the Black Sea and the Arctic, and Russian fighter jets and paratroopers arrived in Belarus for joint war games. Speaking to Russian lawmakers Wednesday before the U.S. and NATO responses were delivered, Lavrov said he and other top officials will advise Putin on the next steps. “If the West continues its aggressive course, Moscow will take the necessary retaliatory measures,” Lavrov said. But he indicated Russia wouldn’t wait forever. “We won’t allow our proposals to be drowned in endless discussions,” he said. Amid the tensions, the U.S., Britain, Australia, Germany and Canada have moved to withdraw some of their diplomats and dependents from Kyiv, a move President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sought to play down Tuesday as part of a “complex diplomatic game.” Read: Britain says Russia seeking to replace Ukraine government On Wednesday, the U.S. urged Americans in Ukraine to consider leaving, saying the security situation “continues to be unpredictable due to the increased threat of Russian military action and can deteriorate with little notice.” In 2014, following the ouster of a Kremlin-friendly president in Kyiv, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in the country’s eastern industrial heartland. Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels has killed over 14,000 people, and efforts to reach a settlement have stalled. Envoys from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany met Wednesday for more than eight hours in Paris on the separatist conflict. Although there was no breakthrough, they promised to meet for new talks in two weeks in Berlin. The French president’s office said afterward in a statement that the parties support “unconditional respect” for a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. The talks focused on the 2015 Minsk peace agreement aimed at ending the conflict, and the statement didn’t address the current concerns about a Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Those are different issues, and we didn’t discuss it,” said Kremlin envoy Dmitry Kozak. The Ukrainian representative, Andriy Yermak, was cautiously optimistic about Wednesday’s talks, which he said marked the first major advance since December 2019. He also acknowledged they did not directly address current tensions at the border or resolve past differences. “Of course, I wouldn’t be honest if I said that we all want faster and bigger results,” Yermak said. “And of course there is nothing bigger than the desire of Ukrainian people to stop the war, to bring back our territories and our people.” Yermak also said the Ukrainians repeatedly raised the issue of troops now massed on the border. “This is the real threat,” he said. “I have clearly said today that we expect de-escalation not only around occupied territories but also in general de-escalation around Ukrainian borders.” Kozak said varying interpretations of the Minsk agreement have remained a major stumbling block. He said the the four parties will make another attempt to reach consensus on the issue in two weeks. Kozak reaffirmed that Russia isn’t a party to the conflict and emphasized that Ukraine is reluctant to engage in talks with separatists as stipulated in the Minsk document. He said there has been no progress on key aspects of the agreement that Ukraine must grant special status to the rebel regions, followed by elections.