MOSCOW/LONDON – Russia held the door open Monday to further talks on resolving its standoff with the West and said some of its military drills were ending, signaling a possible easing of the crisis over Ukraine.
As Western intelligence officials warned Wednesday could mark the start of an invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on national television the day would be marked as “Unity Day.”
While the comments from President Vladimir Putin and his foreign and defense ministers seemed to offer hope of a de-escalation, the Pentagon said Russian forces on the border with Ukraine were still growing.
“It is a distinct possibility, perhaps more real than ever before, that Russia may decide to proceed with military action, with new Russian forces continuing to arrive at the Ukrainian border,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Monday.
But Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said they still did not believe Moscow had made a final decision on whether to invade.
During a carefully choreographed meeting with Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said “there is always a chance” to reach an agreement with the West over Ukraine.
Exchanges with leaders in European capitals and Washington showed enough of an opening for progress on Russia’s goals to be worth pursuing, he told Putin.
“I would suggest continuing,” Lavrov said in televised remarks. “Fine,” Putin replied.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Kyiv, vowing that Berlin and its Western allies would maintain support for Ukraine’s security and independence. He urged Russia to take up “offers of dialogue.”
During a news conference in Kyiv with Zelensky, Scholz said there was “no reasonable justification” for Russia’s build-up of troops around Ukraine’s borders.
Scholz will visit Moscow on Tuesday.
Ukraine has demanded an urgent meeting with Russia and other members of the pan-European security body, the OSCE, to explain Moscow’s troop movements.
European leaders have warned that the build-up is the worst threat to the continent’s security since the Cold War, with Putin demanding a rollback of Western influence in Eastern Europe and a ban on Ukraine joining NATO.
Western allies have prepared what they warn would be a crippling package of economic sanctions in response to any attack, although Moscow has repeatedly said it has no such plans.
Recent Russian military exercises, including with Belarus, where the U.S. said Moscow had dispatched 30,000 troops for more than a week of drills, have caused rising concern.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin that some of the drills were “ending” and more would end “in the near future.”
“This is a clear message — things are fine, let’s continue talking,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin. “Our side is demonstrating strength but we’re not planning anything.”
In Kyiv, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov hailed “positive” talks with his Belarusian counterpart, saying he had been assured “there are no threats to Ukraine from Belarus.”
U.S. intelligence officials worry that weeks of crisis talks have given Russia the time to prepare a major offensive should Putin decide to attack Ukraine.
On Sunday, Washington warned that Russia was ready to strike at “any moment.”
But on Monday, Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council, said Kyiv did not believe Russia would attack on Wednesday or Thursday.
Near the front-line separating Kyiv-held territory from areas controlled by Moscow-backed insurgents in the east, underprivileged children in the care of church groups were helping with war preparations.
“We are digging trenches that Ukrainian soldiers could quickly jump into and defend in case the Russians attack,” 15-year-old Mykhailo Anopa said.
In Moscow, Russians said they did not want war.
“People in the West do not understand that we are one people,” Pavel Kuleshov, a 65-year-old pensioner, said, referring to Russians and Ukrainians. “Nobody wants a civil war.”
Germany plays a central role in efforts to mediate in eastern Ukraine, where a grueling conflict with Russian-backed separatists has claimed more than 14,000 lives.
But Berlin’s close business relations with Moscow and heavy reliance on Russian natural gas imports have been a source of lingering concern for Kyiv’s pro-Western leaders and U.S. President Joe Biden’s team.
Scholz has hedged against unequivocally backing Biden’s pledge to “bring an end” to Russia’s new Nord Stream 2 gas link to Germany.
Brussels will wait for the results of Scholz’s Moscow visit, but an emergency summit is “possible” if needed when EU leaders gather in Brussels on Thursday, a senior EU official said.
Zelensky repeated during Monday’s news conference with Scholz that joining the NATO alliance would guarantee Ukraine’s survival.
Ukraine’s membership is a sticking point in talks between Russia and the West, which has spurned a demand from Moscow that Kyiv never be admitted to the U.S.-led military bloc.
“We understand that NATO membership would ensure our security and our territorial integrity,” Zelensky said.
A growing number of Western countries are withdrawing staff from their Kyiv embassies and urging their citizens to leave Ukraine immediately.
But departures may be complicated if more airlines stop using Ukranian airspace because of the growing risks.
Ukraine’s budget airline SkyUp said European leasing companies were demanding that Ukrainian carriers return their planes to EU airspace within 48 hours.
On Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Biden agreed in a call that a “crucial window for diplomacy” remained over the crisis in Ukraine, Johnson’s office said.
“They agreed there remained a crucial window for diplomacy and for Russia to step back from its threats towards Ukraine,” a Downing Street spokesman added of the call between the trans-Atlantic allies.
“The leaders emphasized that any further incursion into Ukraine would result in a protracted crisis for Russia, with far reaching damage for both Russia and the world.”
They also stressed that diplomatic discussions with Russia remained “the first priority,” and welcomed talks that have already taken place between Russia and NATO allies, according to the spokesman.
“They agreed that Western allies must remain united in the face of Russian threats, including imposing a significant package of sanctions should Russian aggression escalate,” he added.
“They also reiterated the need for European countries to reduce their dependence on Russian gas, a move which, more than any other, would strike at the heart of Russia’s strategic interests.”
The White House said the two leaders “reviewed ongoing diplomatic and deterrence efforts in response to Russia’s continued military build-up on Ukraine’s borders and reaffirmed their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
“They discussed efforts to reinforce the defensive posture on NATO’s eastern flank and underlined the continued close coordination among Allies and partners, including on readiness to impose severe consequences on Russia should it choose further military escalation,” it added.
Earlier Monday, Johnson urged Putin to step back from “the edge of a precipice,” calling the situation “very, very dangerous.”
The British leader said he had no plans to visit Moscow, but that he would be discussing the crisis with “various leaders” soon.
Meanwhile in London, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss later chaired a meeting of the government’s emergency “COBR” committee, to discuss British nationals who may end up stuck in Ukraine in the event of hostilities.
The government is urging all Britons to leave the country by commercial flights, but says it is maintaining a “core” diplomatic presence in Kyiv.
“We are doing everything possible to prevent a Russian invasion in Ukraine, while also preparing for the worst,” Truss tweeted after the meeting.
The prime minister was also to receive a security briefing from intelligence chiefs.
On Tuesday, he will chair a full meeting of the Civil Contingencies Committee that is convened to handle matters of national emergency or major disruption to discuss the U.K.’s overall response, Downing Street said.