WASHINGTON (AP) — Some airlines canceled flights to the Ukrainian capital and troops unloaded new shipments of weapons there from NATO members on Sunday, as its president sought to project confidence in the face of U.S. warnings of ‘a possible invasion in a few days by an increasing number of Russian forces.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke with President Joe Biden for about an hour, insisting that the Ukrainians had the country under “safe and reliable protection” against a feared attack by a much stronger Russian military, reports said. further aid. The White House said the two agreed to continue pushing both deterrence and diplomacy to try to avert a feared Russian military offensive.
The Biden administration has become increasingly outspoken about its fears that Russia is staging an incident in the coming days that would create a false pretext for an invasion of Ukraine.
U.S. and European intelligence discoveries in recent days have raised concerns that Russia is trying to target a Ukrainian military exercise scheduled for Tuesday in eastern Ukraine to launch such a ‘false flag operation’, two people say close to the file. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about it publicly.
US intelligence officials believe that targeting the military exercise is just one of multiple options Russia has considered as a possibility for a false flag operation. The White House has stressed that it does not know for sure whether President Vladimir Putin has made the final decision to launch an invasion.
Moscow’s forces are massing in northern, eastern and southern Ukraine in what the Kremlin insists are military exercises.
A US official has updated the Biden administration’s estimate of the number of Russian forces currently deployed near Ukraine’s borders to more than 130,000, up from the more than 100,000 that the US has publicly cited over the past previous weeks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s findings.
Zelenskyy has repeatedly downplayed US warnings, questioning increasingly strident statements by US officials in recent days that Russia may be planning to invade as early as mid-week.
“We all understand the risks, we understand there are risks,” he said on a Saturday broadcast. “If you or anyone else has any additional information regarding an all-Russian invasion from the 16th, please pass it on to us.”
But while Zelenskyy has urged against the panic he says could undermine Ukraine’s economy, he and his civilian and military leaders are also preparing defenses, soliciting and receiving a stream of weapons from the United States and other members. of NATO.
A military cargo plane carrying US-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and ammunition from NATO member Lithuania landed on Sunday, bolstering the country’s defenses against air attack.
Zelenskyy wore drab olive military clothes during a drill with tanks and helicopters near the border between Ukraine and Russia-annexed Crimea over the weekend. In nearby Kalanchak, some expressed disbelief that Putin would really send his troops rolling into the country.
“I don’t believe Russia will attack us,” resident Boris Cherepenko said. “I have friends in Sakhalin, in Krasnodar,” he said, naming Russian regions. “I do not believe it.”
In Kyiv, others expressed uncertainty about whether Russian action would be economic, military, or happen at all. A woman, Alona Buznitskaya, speaking on a central street in the capital carrying a few placards declaring “I love Ukraine”, said she was calm.
“You must always be ready for anything, and then you will have nothing to fear,” she said.
The United States has largely not made public the evidence it says underpins its most specific warnings about possible Russian planning or timing.
“We’re not going to give Russia the opportunity to surprise here, throw anything at Ukraine or the world,” Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, told CNN on Sunday. American warnings.
“We’re going to make sure that we present to the world what we see in the most transparent and clear way possible,” he said.
The Russians deployed missile, air, naval and special operations forces, as well as supplies to support an invasion. This week, Russia moved six amphibious assault ships into the Black Sea, increasing its ability to land on the coast.
Putin denies any intention to attack Ukraine. Russia demands that the West keep former Soviet countries out of NATO. It also wants NATO to refrain from deploying weapons near its border and roll back alliance forces from Eastern Europe – demands flatly rejected by the West.
Biden and Putin spoke for more than an hour on Saturday, but the White House made no suggestion that the call diminished the threat of impending war in Europe.
Reflecting Western concerns, Dutch airline KLM has canceled flights to Ukraine until further notice, the company said. Ukrainian charter airline SkyUp said on Sunday that its flight from Madeira, Portugal to Kiev had been diverted to the Moldovan capital.
And Ukraine’s air traffic safety agency Ukraerorukh issued a statement declaring the airspace above the Black Sea a “potential danger zone” and recommended that planes avoid flying over the sea from May 14 to February 19.
The Putin-Biden conversation, following a call between Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron earlier in the day, came at a critical time in what has become the biggest security crisis between Russia and the West since the cold War. US officials believe they have only days to prevent an invasion and massive bloodshed in Ukraine.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will fly to Kyiv on Monday to meet Zelensky and Moscow on Tuesday to meet Putin.
Although the United States and NATO have made it clear that they have no intention of sending troops to Ukraine to fight Russia, any invasion and the resulting punitive sanctions promised by the United States and other countries could ripple far beyond the former Soviet republic, affecting energy supplies, global markets and the balance of power in Europe.
The United States was withdrawing most of its staff from the embassy in Kyiv and urging all American citizens to leave Ukraine immediately. Britain has joined other European nations in telling its citizens to leave.
Biden has bolstered the US military presence in Europe to reassure allies on NATO’s eastern flank. The 3,000 additional soldiers ordered in Poland come on top of the 1,700 who are on the way. The US military is also transferring 1,000 troops from Germany to Romania, which, like Poland, shares a border with Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in bitter conflict since 2014, when Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin leader was ousted 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 more than 14,000 people.
A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany stopped large-scale battles, but regular skirmishes have continued and efforts to reach a political settlement have stalled.
Heintz reported from Moscow. Nomaan Merchant in Washington, Yuras Karmanau and Nebi Qena in Kiev, Ukraine, and Oleksandr Stashevsky in Kalanchak, Ukraine contributed.