KYIV, Ukraine — President Biden warned Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Saturday of “swift and severe costs” if Russia invades Ukraine, the White House said, as the United States evacuated diplomats in preparation for a potential assault.
Biden, in an hourlong call with the Russian president, said the United States and its allies would “respond decisively” to any attack, the White House said in a statement. But the call produced no breakthrough as the two sides continued to exchange recriminations over Ukraine.
Fearing the potential for imminent conflict, a growing number of nations have urged their citizens to depart Ukraine in recent days. The Biden administration on Saturday announced it would reduce its embassy in Kyiv to a skeleton staff and pull military trainers back from their positions in western Ukraine.
The Kremlin, describing the two leaders’ first conversation since late last year, accused the United States of stoking conflict and portrayed Ukraine, not Russia, as the potential aggressor. U.S. officials have said Russia, now conducting major military exercises in neighboring Belarus, could launch a “false flag” operation as a pretext for an assault.
“The Americans are artificially inflating the hysteria around the so-called planned Russian invasion,” Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters following the call. “The preconditions for possible provocative actions of the Ukrainian armed forces are being created alongside these allegations.”
At the same time, Moscow said it would pull its own diplomatic staff from Ukraine, citing “possible provocations by the Kyiv regime and third countries.” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the move was in response to other governments’ deciding to draw down their diplomatic corps and urging their citizens to leave.
“We conclude that our American and British colleagues apparently know about some military actions being prepared in Ukraine,” she said, according to a statement by the ministry.
The Biden administration intensified its warnings this week about a potential assault, as national security adviser Jake Sullivan cautioned on Friday that Russia could invade in a “reasonably swift time frame.” Sullivan said he could not confirm if Putin had made a final decision to attack, but said that military action, likely beginning with air or missile strikes, could begin “any day.”
As tensions reached a fever pitch, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country was prepared to respond.
“We are ready for any steps from any side, from any borders,” he said during a visit to southern Ukraine. “We understand that such things can take place without warning.”
The Ukrainian leader spoke as thousands of protestors, many wearing Ukrainian flags draped across their shoulders, marched in Kyiv on Saturday in a show of defiance.
Demonstrators carried a large banner printed in English that said “Ukrainians will resist,” along with signs in the Ukrainian language saying “Ukraine will triumph,” as the column snaked its way through downtown Kyiv.
A senior U.S. official, speaking to reporters after Biden’s call with Putin, said the two men agreed to stay in touch but said there was “no fundamental change in the dynamic” during the discussion.
The Kremlin meanwhile said Moscow would respond “in the near future” to recent U.S. and NATO proposals for further security talks. Russian officials have said that Western nations, even as they seek common ground on issues including arms control and military exercises, have failed to address Russia’s central demand of limiting NATO’s presence in the former Soviet sphere.
Russia has denied it plans to attack and demanded that Ukraine, an increasingly pro-Western former Soviet republic that Putin considers part of his sphere of influence, be permanently barred from joining the western NATO alliance. NATO has refused to budge on its open door policy.
Tensions along Ukraine’s borders remained high on Saturday as Russia conducted its third day of military exercises in Belarus, the largest it has ever carried out in the Kremlin-allied state to Ukraine’s north.
During the exercises, Russia’s military has touted field training on land and in the air. Fighter jet crews have practiced destroying approaching aircraft, and Russian motorized rifle units paired with Belarusian special operations forces have attacked mock troop formations. Marine scouts have also led classes on ambush tactics and surveillance, the Defense Ministry said.
The Kremlin has amassed about 130,000 heavily armed troops around Ukraine, from which it annexed Crimea in 2014. Moscow is also carrying out naval exercises near the southern coastline of mainland Ukraine, as well as a major training operation in Belarus — in striking distance of Kyiv — that analysts caution could be a precursor to an invasion.
Putin and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko spoke on Saturday about the need for “long-term international-law security guarantees for Russia,” the Kremlin said.
Diplomats, meanwhile, raced to steer the situation back from the brink, but with little sign of progress.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed White House warnings in a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday, warning Russia that invading Ukraine “would result in a resolute, massive, and united Transatlantic response,” the State Department said.
Lavrov, for his part, accused Washington of engaging in a propaganda campaign against Russia and pushing its allies in Kyiv to resolve its crisis in Ukraine’s contested Donbas territory with force, according to Russia’s foreign ministry.
French President Emmanuel Macron also spoke with Putin for more than 90 minutes Saturday, according to his office, and held separate calls with Zelensky and German chancellor Olaf Scholz.
The State Department announced Saturday that consular services would be suspended at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, but officials said there would be a small diplomatic presence in western city of Lviv to handle emergencies. U.S. citizens needing passport or visa assistance should apply to embassies in neighboring countries, officials said.
The scene was calm at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv as staffers emptied the facility in a trickle Saturday afternoon, carrying bags to waiting taxis amid light snow. Others appeared prepared for a long night in the office. An embassy staffer met a delivery driver on the sidewalk and carried five pizzas into the gate.
A senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said that Americans who chose to stay in Ukraine should not expect the U.S. government to come to their rescue in the run-up to a potential Russian attack. He urged them to leave the country while commercial flights and rail transport were still functioning.
“We do a great deal to provide support for our fellow citizens, but, as you know, there are real limits to what we are able to do in a war zone,” the official said.
The official said U.S. military support to Kyiv was continuing, including with a new shipment of ammunition expected to arrive Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon said Saturday it was pulling out 160 members of the Florida National Guard that have been on a training mission in western Ukraine. The troops, which have been in Ukraine since late November, will be repositioned elsewhere in Europe.
A British junior defense minister also said Saturday that British military trainers in Ukraine would leave over the weekend. “There will be no British troops in Ukraine if there is any conflict with Russia,” James Heappey told Sky News.
The U.S. assessment that Putin is likely to launch an attack is based partly on new intelligence that Russia is planning to stage an operation serving as a guise for invading Ukraine. The precise date and nature of the alleged Russian operation was unclear. U.S. officials had earlier accused Russia of planning to stage and film a fake attack by Ukrainian military forces on Russia as a pretext for invasion.
Germany on Saturday joined a growing list of governments urging their citizens to get out of Ukraine as soon as possible. Britain, Latvia, Norway, the Netherlands, South Korea and Japan and others have issued similar advisories in recent days. Israel says it will begin to evacuate the families of diplomatic staff based in Ukraine.
Germany’s Scholz, who heads to Moscow on Tuesday, is the next Western leader slated to meet Putin in person. Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, whose Green party is more skeptical of Moscow than Scholz’s Social Democrats, suggested Friday that the approval of the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline between Russia and Germany could be contingent on the Kremlin holding its troops back.
The Russian buildup has drawn European nations closer to the United States. U.S. officials confirmed Friday that an additional 3,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division would be sent to Poland, adding to the 1,700 troops already dispatched to that country. And Finland, a non-NATO member that has close ties with both Russia and the alliance, announced Friday that it was purchasing military assets from the United States.
Cheng reported from Seoul and Dixon reported from Moscow. Alex Horton and David Stern in Kyiv, Karen DeYoung, Dan Lamothe and Tyler Pager in Washington, Mary Ilyushina in Moscow and Michael E. Miller in Sydney contributed to this report.