Belarus has said 30,000 Russian troops taking part in joint exercises will remain in the country indefinitely, as Western leaders launched a new effort to maintain dialogue with Vladimir Putin in a bid to deter an attack on Ukraine.
Belarus’ announcement came on the day joint military exercises were due to end and added to Western fears that Russia is considering an invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow has massed up to 190,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, including those taking part in drills in Belarus, despite previously promising to return to base.
French President Emmanuel Macron held talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Sunday, in what a French official described as “part of the last possible and necessary efforts to avoid a major conflict”.
France said Putin had agreed with Macron on an “intense effort” to organize a trilateral meeting between Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Monday in the purpose of enforcing the ceasefire on the 500-km “line of contact” in eastern Ukraine.
The conflict between Russian-backed separatists and government forces in Donbass, eastern Ukraine, has escalated in recent days. The separatists accused Ukrainian troops of violating the ceasefire and ordered the evacuation of civilians, in a move that Kiev and its Western allies have described as a prelude to a Russian invasion. Kyiv reported heavy shelling of its frontline positions.
Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, said US President Joe Biden was “ready to meet with President Putin at any time, in any format, if it can help prevent a war.”
The Kremlin said the Russian president “recognizes the importance” of finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis “through the foreign ministries and political advisers of the Normandy format countries”, a reference to Russia, the Ukraine, Germany and France.
“It is up to these contacts to ensure that the ceasefire is restored and that progress in the settlement of the Donbass conflict is made,” he said, without confirming any specific agreement on other talks.
Putin blamed the clashes in eastern Ukraine on “provocations by Ukrainian security forces”, as the United States accused Moscow of creating false pretenses for an attack.
Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said on Sunday that Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko had taken the decision to extend the exercises indefinitely due to “increased military activity on [the countries’] eastern borders and the aggravation of the situation in the Donbass”.
Underscoring Biden’s willingness to speak to the Russian leader, Blinken told CBS: “Even if the dice are rolled, until they’re settled, until we know the tanks are rolling, the planes are stealing and the attack has fully begun, we will do everything to prevent it.
“But we are prepared anyway, and we are prepared with a response that will have massive consequences for Russia if it actually succeeds.”
Blinken said Washington believed Putin had decided to invade Ukraine, but diplomacy was still an option. “As we described, everything leading up to the actual invasion appears to be taking place,” Blinken said. “All these false flag operations, all these provocations, to create justification. All of this is already happening.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Russia could move “a significant amount of combat power very quickly to take Kiev.”
“We see a lot of tanks, armored vehicles, we see a lot of artillery, we see rocket forces. If he uses that kind of combat power, it will certainly create huge casualties within a civilian population. Austin told ABC News.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told state television that “tensions have been escalated to the maximum [on] the line of contact” in the Donbass. “Any spark, unforeseen event or minor provocation could lead to irreversible consequences,” he said.
But Peskov said Western claims that Russia was planning an imminent invasion were “provocative” and “could have disastrous results”. He repeated Putin’s denials that Russia would attack Ukraine.
“Russia, which has lived through so many wars, is the last country in Europe that even wants to say the word ‘war’ out loud,” he said.
Peskov claimed Western support encouraged Kiev “to solve the Donbass problem by force”, a charge Ukraine has repeatedly denied.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the UK and US could target Russia’s access to foreign currency under a sanctions regime.
“We will, together with our American friends, prevent them from trading in pounds and dollars,” he told the BBC. Sunday morning television program.
“We make sure to open the Russian doll of land ownership, business ownership, in London and see who is behind it all.”
Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London and Aime Williams in Washington