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Biden reiterates U.S. commitment to respond ‘swiftly and decisively’ to a Russian attack on Ukraine as diplomacy stalls

Demonstrators assemble in Kyiv, Ukraine, over the weekend. (Chris Mcgrath/Getty Images)

Diplomatic efforts to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine failed to ease tensions over the weekend, as the Biden administration warned that a Russian attack could happen at any moment and promised to respond to any aggression “swiftly and decisively.”

U.S. and Western allies are scrambling to defuse what they say is a rapidly deteriorating situation, as Russia has amassed about 130,000 troops and equipment along Ukraine’s border, and as diplomats and citizens of Western countries have begun leaving Kyiv in recent days.

President Biden spoke by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday, reiterating the United States’ commitment to Ukraine and that it would respond aggressively to any attack, the White House said, through sanctions and other measures to level a high cost for Russia.

Biden spoke to Zelensky a day after an hour-long call between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin did not produce a breakthrough.

“The two leaders agreed on the importance of continuing to pursue diplomacy and deterrence in response to Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders,” the White House said in a short statement following the 51-minute call between Biden and Zelensky.

What’s happening in the Ukraine-Russia crisis

The Ukrainian president, seeking to avoid panic and damage to his country’s economy, has played down fears of an imminent Russian invasion and has shown irritation at increasingly dire U.S. warnings, even as the withdrawal of Western diplomats continues, and commercial airlines have expressed concern about the safety of Ukrainian airspace.

The Biden administration said Saturday that it was pulling 160 Florida National Guard members from Ukraine, where they have been advising the Ukrainian military since November, “out of an abundance of caution.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will travel to Kyiv and Moscow this week to take his turn at mitigating the crisis, after efforts by several other European leaders had not produced a breakthrough.

Scholz, who has faced criticism that his government is not doing enough to support Ukraine, is due to meet with Zelensky on Monday and Putin on Tuesday. French President Emmanuel Macron also spoke with Putin and Zelensky over the weekend, his office said.

British defense secretary Ben Wallace, who visited Moscow for talks with Putin last week, told Britain’s Sunday Times it is “highly likely” that Russia will order an attack on Ukraine, and likened the 11th-hour diplomatic efforts to Europe’s failed attempts to appease Nazi Germany in the lead-up to World War II.

West prepares to sharpen eastern defenses if Russia invades Ukraine

Biden, in an hour-long call with the Russian president Saturday, said the United States and its allies would “respond decisively” to a Russian invasion of Ukraine, which U.S. officials have said will probably start with a barrage of air or missile strikes.

U.S. officials said Friday that new intelligence shows Russia has troops and major weaponry on three sides of Ukraine and is fully prepared to launch an attack.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday that Russia has accelerated its military buildup on Ukraine’s borders over the past 10 days.

That buildup “and the movement of Russian forces of all varieties closer to the border” has put Russia “in a position where they could launch a military action very, very rapidly,” he said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” adding that it was still impossible to predict what would happen.

He said an attack would probably begin with “a significant barrage of missiles and bomb attacks” followed by “an onslaught of a ground force moving across the Ukrainian frontier.” Civilians would probably be caught in the crossfire or trapped, he warned.

Russia has been staging military exercises in its south, the Black Sea, as well as in Belarus, Ukraine’s northern neighbor and a close Putin ally, where a massive joint exercise is underway. Military analysts have warned that the exercise could be used as cover for an invasion.

A Belarusian opposition group accused Russia of using only some of its troops in the drills. Others were “deployed outside the places of the drills, near the border with Ukraine in the regime of secrecy,” opposition spokesman Franak Viacorka tweeted, citing unnamed sources.

Russia has denied that it plans to attack Ukraine, but it is demanding that the United States and NATO end the military alliance’s expansion and bar its pro-Western neighbor Ukraine from joining.

Sullivan said if Russia attacked Ukraine, NATO and the West would emerge from the crisis “stronger, more determined, more purposeful than we have been in 30 years, and that Russia ultimately suffers a significant strategic cost for military action.”

He rejected accusations that the United States was spreading panic, saying transparency was intended to deny Russia the opportunity to “spring something on Ukraine or the world.”

Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba meanwhile said Sundaythat the “situation remains under control” and that Ukraine was “prepared for any scenario.” “We have not been sitting with our arms folded for the last months, we have prepared for all scenarios — absolutely all — and as of now we are ready for them,” he said in a video released by the foreign ministry.

The Ukrainian government also said Sunday that it would start subsidizing Ukrainian airlines’ insurance costs, in an effort to keep flights coming and going from the country, even as the threat of a Russian air war looms.

Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said the government decided in a Sunday night meeting to allocate about $600 million of a state reserve fund to “guarantee uninterrupted flights.” Shmyhal, who posted the news in his Telegram channel, said the move would help stabilize the commercial air market in the country, and guarantee a return route to Ukrainian citizens who are abroad.

Ukraine’s SkyUp airline said Sunday that the Irish company that owns its aircraft forced a flight from Portugal to Kyiv to land in Moldova after the leasing company banned it from entering Ukrainian airspace. Dutch carrier KLM also suspended flights into Ukraine.

Australia on Sunday joined a growing list of governments ordering the evacuation of their embassies in Kyiv as the security situation escalates. The United States, Germany, Britain, Latvia, Norway, the Netherlands, Israel, South Korea and Japan and others in recent days have reduced their personnel and urged citizens to get out of Ukraine as soon as possible. On Saturday, Canada said it will relocate its staff from Kyiv to Lviv, about 60 miles from the Polish border.

Israel and aid groups ready to aid Ukrainian Jewish community if war comes

“The situation is deteriorating and is reaching a very dangerous stage,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who last week hosted Secretary of State Antony Blinken for security talks, said on Sunday. “The autocratic, unilateral actions of Russia, to be threatening and bullying Ukraine, is something that is completely and utterly unacceptable,” he added.

The European security organization that monitors a cease-fire between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists also said Sunday that several countries were withdrawing their staff from the mission in eastern Ukraine for security reasons.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has monitored cease-fire violations from the rebel-held city of Donetsk as part of a stalled seven-year peace agreement that has failed to end the conflict that erupted there in 2014.

A Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman said the OSCE mission was “being deliberately dragged into the militarist psychosis stoked by Washington and being used as an instrument for a possible provocation.”

“We proceed from the understanding that in the environment of artificially stoked tension, the monitoring activities of the mission in full conformity with its mandate are now in demand as never before,” spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Sunday in a statement on the foreign ministry’s website.

Talks in Berlin on Thursday to try to revive the peace deal failed to find a path forward.

As Scholz prepares for his round of diplomacy this week, Germany is facing sharp criticism in Ukraine over its moves to block third countries from sending German-manufactured weapons to Ukraine, and Berlin’s reluctance to send Ukraine arms.

Ukrainian officials have held calls and meetings with European allies in recent days in an effort to shore up support and protection against Russia. The Biden administration has said it will not send U.S. troops into Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion, but that it will respond with what officials describe as crippling economic sanctions.

In Washington, Republicans and right-wing pundits have alternatively criticized the Biden administration for doing too little to help Ukraine, or for doing too little to appease Russia.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) on Sunday complained that Putin is “paying no price” for Russia’s troop buildup, and that Biden needed to send a stronger signal to make clear that an invasion of Ukraine would be catastrophic for Russia’s economy.

“I’d like to hit him now for the provocation and have sanctions, sanctions spelled out very clearly what happens to the ruble and his oil and gas economy,” Graham said of Putin on ABC’s “This Week.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Fox News host Tucker Carlson have called in recent weeks for the Biden administration to take a more appeasing stance toward Russia, by barring Ukraine from joining NATO. Hawley has also garnered criticism from Democrats for slowing the confirmations of critical Pentagon appointees such as Russia expert Celeste Wallander, even as the Pentagon readies itself for a NATO response to Russian aggression.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who has broken with his party on some issues in recent years, said it was “a huge concern” that a growing number of his Republican colleagues were calling on Biden to bar Ukraine from joining NATO. “I’m on Team America, Team Ukraine,” Kinzinger said. “There are some nuances I would have done different than the Biden administration, but I think now’s the time to stand unified.”

Khurshudyan reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Dixon reported from Moscow. David L. Stern in Kyiv, Rachel Pannett in Sydney and Amy B Wang, Tyler Pager and Drew Harwell in Washington contributed to this report.