Putin and Biden Discuss Mounting Ukraine Crisis

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin are having a telephone conversation Saturday as tensions continue to grow amid concerns that Russia is ready to mount an invasion of Ukraine.

The White House said the call began minutes after 11 a.m. EST.

Washington has received intelligence reports that the invasion could happen as early as Wednesday.

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv has begun evacuating its staff. In addition, the State Department has issued a travel advisory warning people not to travel to Ukraine "due to the increased threats of Russian military action" and advised "those in Ukraine should depart immediately."

A few U.S. diplomats are expected to be relocated to far western Ukraine, near Poland, a NATO ally, a move that would allow the U.S. to maintain a "diplomatic presence" in Ukraine.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Saturday that Moscow has decided to ‘optimize’ its diplomatic staff numbers in Ukraine, citing fears of ‘possible provocations from the Kyiv regime.’

Zakharova did not describe the move in detail but said the embassy and consulates in Ukraine continued to perform key functions.

Also Saturday, Britain told its nationals to leave Ukraine, and Germany and the Netherlands told its citizens to leave as soon as possible.

Before the two leaders talk Saturday, however, Putin talked with French President Emmanuel Macron, with whom Putin met earlier in the week.

Ukrainians attend a rally in central Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022, during a protest against the potential escalation of the tension between Russia and Ukraine. Ukrainians attend a rally in central Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022, during a protest against the potential escalation of the tension between Russia and Ukraine.

Ukraine: What We Know

Macron said he told the Russian leader that ‘sincere dialogue’ is incompatible with escalating fears that Russia will invade Ukraine.

The two spoke for nearly two hours, Macron’s office said. It said Macron and Putin ‘both expressed a desire to continue dialogue’ on how to ‘advance the Minsk accords’ on the restive Donbas region as well as ‘security conditions and stability in Europe," his office said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Putin denounced to Macron the ‘provocative speculation related to an allegedly planned Russian ‘invasion’ of Ukraine,’ the Kremlin said in a statement, according to Agence France-Presse.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced in a statement on Saturday that he had ordered the temporary repositioning of the 160 members of the Florida National Guard who have been deployed to Ukraine since late November, according to a statement by Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.

"These troops, assigned to the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, have been advising and mentoring Ukrainian forces as part of Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine," the statement said. It added that the troops would be repositioned elsewhere in Europe.

"This repositioning does not signify a change in our determination to support Ukraine’s Armed Forces but will provide flexibility in assuring allies and deterring aggression," the statement added.

Earlier Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, about what appears to be Russia’s imminent invasion of Ukraine.

’The Secretary made clear that a diplomatic path to resolving the crisis remained open, but it would require Moscow to de-escalate and engage in good-faith discussions," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.

Map: Russian troop locations near Ukraine Map: Russian troop locations near Ukraine

Blinken "reiterated that should Moscow pursue the path of aggression and further invade Ukraine, it would result in a resolute, massive, and united Transatlantic response," the statement said.

Blinken, speaking at a press conference in Fiji, said if Putin "decides to take military action [against Ukraine] we will swiftly impose severe economic sanctions in coordination with allies and partners around the globe, will bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, we will reinforce our allies on the eastern flank. I’ll underscore this unity and result when I speak with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov later tonight."

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could begin ‘during the Olympics’ or when Putin decides to order it.

Many analysts have said that Russia is unlikely to carry out any invasion before the Winter Olympics in China end February 20.

Russia now has enough forces on Ukraine’s border to conduct a major military operation, Sullivan said, and Russia could seize ‘significant territory’ in Ukraine, including the capital, Kyiv, in an attack.

On Friday, Biden took part in a secure video call with world leaders to discuss Ukraine.

’The leaders agreed on the importance of coordinated efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine, including their readiness to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia should it choose military escalation,’ according to a White House statement. In addition to Biden, the call included the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Britain, NATO, the European Union and the European Council.

A senior U.S. defense official told reporters that Biden has ordered an additional 3,000 soldiers to Poland in addition to the 1,700 already headed there. The Pentagon said the troops are being deployed to reassure NATO allies and deter any potential aggression against NATO’s eastern flank.

The Pentagon announced last week the deployment of the previous 1,700 troops to Poland along with 300 troops who were to be moved from the United States to Germany. It also announced at that time that 1,000 troops already based in Germany were to be redeployed to Romania.

Russian officials have denied they plan to invade Ukraine, but diplomatic talks with Western officials have led to a standoff. Russia has demanded that the United States and its allies reject Ukraine’s bid for membership in NATO.

The West has rejected that as a nonstarter but has said it is willing to negotiate with Moscow over missile deployment and troop exercises in Eastern European countries closest to Russia.

Western governments have been calling on Russia to take steps to de-escalate the crisis and have vowed to impose swift and severe economic sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine.

VOA State Department correspondent Cindy Saine, Carla Babb at the Pentagon and national security correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report. Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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