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‘Swift and severe costs’: Ukraine tension ratchets up as Biden and Putin speak

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A senior administration official described the call as “professional” and noted there was “no fundamental change in the dynamic that has been unfolding now for several weeks.”

“It remains unclear whether Russia is interested in pursuing its goals diplomatically as opposed to through the use of force,” the official said. “We don’t have full visibility into President Putin’s decision making.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Saturday, reiterating that a Russian invasion would result in “a resolute, massive, and united Transatlantic response.” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also called his counterpart, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, ahead of the Biden-Putin meeting.

Austin is expected in Brussels this week to take part in a long-planned defense ministers’ meeting at NATO, in which Russia will clearly be at the top of the agenda. Vice President Kamala Harris will also travel to Europe, speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference Feb. 18-20. For the first time in more than a decade, Russian officials have refused to attend the event.

This year’s event in Munich marks the 15th anniversary of a landmark speech Putin delivered to the gathering that has widely been seen as foreshadowing his policy of opposing NATO expansion.

“NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself,” Putin said in the combative 2007 address. “On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.”

In keeping with that doctrine and Putin’s concerns about Western expansion, this December Moscow sent NATO a “draft” treaty negating the possibility that Ukraine ever be allowed to join the alliance. The document, which was quickly rejected by Western capitals, also called on NATO to withdraw from countries added since 1997, which would have the effect of kicking the Baltic and Black Sea members from the alliance.

In Ukraine, the U.S. and U.K. on Saturday ordered the small number of troops they had stationed there in order to train local forces to leave on Saturday. Austin ordered the 160 troops from the Florida National Guard to relocate elsewhere in Europe, while 100 British soldiers will head home. Canada also has a small military training presence in Ukraine, but the Canadian Department of National Defence did not respond to questions about the status of the mission there.

The drawdown is happening as 3,000 more U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division prepare to deploy to Poland in the coming days, joining the 2,000 troops sent there last week.

Another 1,000 soldiers from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment based in Germany also relocated to Romania in recent days.

The State Department on Saturday again asked Americans to flee Ukraine, warning that the government would be unable to help U.S. citizens leave once potential conflict begins. While all Ukrainian officials don’t agree with Washington’s threat assessment, a senior State Department official said, the Ukrainians understand why the State Department took the steps it did on Saturday to scale down its operations in the country.

“Our ability to help them through that crisis, during that crisis, is going to be extremely limited, and they cannot have any reasonable expectation that the U.S. government is going to be able to rescue them if they find themselves in harm’s way in a war zone,” a senior State Department official said, referring to Americans in Ukraine who choose not to heed warnings to flee.

In the past 24 hours, multiple other countries — including Israel, Germany and the U.K. — have been encouraging their citizens to leave and reducing their diplomatic presence. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Saturday that Russia intends to optimize its embassy staff in Ukraine, an indication Moscow, too, is reducing its diplomatic presence in Ukraine for now.

Russia’s foreign ministry continued to decry U.S. warnings as propaganda on Friday, dismissing the alarms as a “coordinated information attack” being “waged against Moscow.”

“The hysteria of the White House is more indicative than ever,” Zakharova said. “The Anglo-Saxons need a war. At any cost. Provocations, misinformation and threats are a favorite method of solving their own problems.”

Putin also spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday for almost two hours, in which Macron told the Russian leader that “sincere dialogue was not compatible with an escalation,” according to the Elysée. The two leaders discussed ways to further implement the Minsk agreements, which are intended to end the existing conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Putin raised his concerns about Western countries’ unwillingness to push Kyiv to implement the Minsk deals, pointing to a round of talks by France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine in Berlin on Thursday which he said had been unsuccessful. The two leaders agreed to continue discussions on the Minsk agreements and on ways to ensure European security.

“We don’t have an indication in what President Putin says that he’ll go on the offensive,” an official in the French presidency said following Saturday’s call. “We nonetheless remain extremely vigilant, extremely alert to changes in the Russian posture so we can, basically, prevent the worst.”

In separate calls with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Macron discussed next steps in talks by the so-called Normandy Format, which includes Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany. Macron also applauded Zelenksyy’s composure in a “particularly volatile context.”

Scholz is expected to travel to Kyiv and Moscow to meet with Putin next week. Scholz and Biden promised a “united” response on shutting down the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline if Putin moves forward with an invasion.

Hanne Cokelaere contributed to this report

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