MOSCOW/ADELAIDE: Russia is massing yet more troops near Ukraine and an invasion could come at any time, perhaps before the end of this month’s Winter Olympics, Washington said on Friday.
Moscow, for its part, stiffened its truculent response towards Western diplomacy, saying answers sent this week by the EU and NATO to its security demands showed “disrespect”.
Commercial satellite images published by a private US company showed new Russian military deployments at several locations near Ukraine.
In his starkest warning yet to Americans in Ukraine to get out now, President Joe Biden said he would not send troops to rescue US citizens in the event of a Russian assault.
“Things could go crazy quickly,” Biden told NBC News.
Biden was due to hold a phone call on Friday to discuss the crisis with the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Poland and Romania, as well as heads of NATO and the EU.
Biden met his national security advisers in the White House Situation Room overnight, a source familiar with the meeting said. US officials believed the crisis could be reaching a critical point, with rhetoric from Moscow hardening, six Russian warships reaching the Black Sea and more Russian military equipment arriving in Belarus, the source said.
“We’re in a window when an invasion could begin at any time, and to be clear, that includes during the Olympics,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The Beijing Games end on Feb. 20.
“Simply put, we continue to see very troubling signs of Russian escalation, including new forces arriving at the Ukrainian border,” Blinken added.
Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov and U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley held phone talks on Friday, Interfax news agency reported, citing a Russian defence ministry statement. They discussed international security, the agency added without giving further details.
With alarm spreading, Japan and the Netherlands also told their citizens on Friday to leave Ukraine immediately. The Dutch diplomatic mission would be pulled from Kyiv and moved far from the Russian frontier to Lviv in Ukraine’s west.
Russia has already massed more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine, and this week launched joint military exercises in neighbouring Belarus and naval drills in the Black Sea.
Moscow denies planning to invade Ukraine, but says it could take unspecified “military-technical” action unless a series of demands are met, including promises from NATO never to admit Ukraine and to withdraw forces from Eastern Europe.
‘IMPOLITENESS AND DISRESPECT’
The West has said those main demands are non-starters. The EU and NATO alliance delivered responses this week on behalf of their member states, which they said had agreed to speak as one.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday it wanted individual answers from each country, and called the collective response insulting: “Such a step cannot be seen as anything other than a sign of diplomatic impoliteness and disrespect for our request.”
Several Western countries launched diplomatic pushes this week to persuade Russia to back down, but Moscow brushed them off, yielding no concessions to French President Emmanuel Macron who visited on Monday, and openly mocking British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss when she came on Thursday. British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was the latest senior Western official to travel to Moscow.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told him Russia would soon respond to the NATO and EU letters. Wallace said Shoigu had repeated Russia’s assurances that it was not planning to invade.
Four-way talks in Berlin between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France, part of a longstanding peace process in a conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists, also yielded no progress on Thursday.
Paris and Kyiv said the Russian delegation had demanded Ukraine negotiate directly with the separatists, a “red line” Ukraine has rejected since the conflict began in 2014.
US-based Maxar Technologies, which has been tracking the buildup of Russian forces, said images taken on Wednesday and Thursday showed large new deployments of troops, vehicles and warplanes at several locations in western Russia, Belarus and Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. The images could not be independently verified by Reuters.
Russia says it has the right to move forces around on its territory as it sees fit, and they pose no external threat.
Western countries have mostly stood together in threatening economic sanctions against Russia if it invades Ukraine, but have given conflicting views on the threat’s immediacy.
Washington and London have said invasion could come within days. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the coming days the most dangerous moment in Europe’s biggest security crisis for decades.
Macron, by contrast, has said he thinks Russia does not have designs on Ukraine but does want changes to European security arrangements, and called the existing Franco-German-led peace process for Ukraine’s separatist conflict a way out.
Whatever its intentions, Moscow has responded dismissively to Western pressure. Pictures of Macron seated far from Putin at the opposite end of a huge table in the Kremlin went viral on the internet this week, widely mocked.
The Kremlin said on Friday the arrangement had been necessary because Macron had refused a COVID-19 test by Russian doctors. French officials said Macron’s travel schedule left no time to wait for test results; French sources also said Macron’s office had been worried Moscow would sample his DNA.