Ukraine’s president played down intensified warnings of a possible Russian invasion within days, saying he had yet to see convincing evidence, even as the U.S. warned Sunday of more Russian troops pressing closer to Ukraine’s borders and some airlines canceled or diverted flights there.
The White House said Joe Biden would talk later in the day with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The Ukrainian leader’s repeated statements urging calm among his people grew this weekend to Zelensky questioning warnings from U.S. officials in recent days that Russia could be planning to invade as soon as midweek.
The U.S. allegedly picked up intelligence that Russia is looking at Wednesday as a target date, according to a U.S. official familiar with the findings. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and did so only on condition of anonymity, would not say how definitive the intelligence was.
“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 U.S. has not made public the evidence it says is underlying its most specific warnings on possible Russian planning or timing.
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, according to The Associated Press.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Sunday that Russia had well over 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders, “and actually, over the last few days, even more.”
Kirby cited “a mosaic of intelligence” the U.S. had gathered, but gave no details. “We have good sources of intelligence and they’re telling us that, you know, that things are sort of building now to some crescendo opportunity for Mr. Putin.”
Zelenskyy’s comments this weekend indicated frustration at the warnings from Washington, as he tries to minimize damage to Ukraine’s economy during the crisis.
“We understand all the risks, we understand that there are risks,” he said in a live broadcast. “If you, or anyone else, has additional information regarding a 100% Russian invasion starting on the 16th, please forward that information to us.”
In an hourlong call Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden said an invasion of Ukraine would cause “widespread human suffering” and that the West was committed to diplomacy to end the crisis but “equally prepared for other scenarios,” the White House said. It offered no suggestion that the call diminished the threat of an imminent war in Europe.
In a sign that the Biden administration is preparing for a worst-case scenario, the United States announced plans to evacuate 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 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 rejected by the West.
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in 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.
“My family has always been prepared, we have all the stuff gathered for like a couple of years now. Honestly, I’m not afraid because the war wouldn’t start like in a week,” 21-year-old Yuliia Zaets said at a pro-government rally on Saturday.