U.S. President Joe Biden has said he is “convinced” Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the decision to invade Ukraine in the coming week but that he still held out hope a diplomatic solution could be reached.
“As of this moment, I am convinced he has made the decision” to invade Ukraine, Biden told a news conference at the White House on February 18 following a 45-minute conference call with European counterparts.
Biden said Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on February 24 in Europe in an effort to find a compromise that will prevent war.
“If Russia takes military action before that date, it would be clear that they have slammed the door shut on diplomacy. They will have chosen war and they will pay a steep price for doing so,” Biden said.
Russia has denied it plans to invade Ukraine and has accused the United States of “hysteria.”
The U.S. president’s ominous comments came as the situation in eastern Ukraine, where Kremlin-backed separatists are fighting government forces, appeared to deteriorate.
The separatists who control parts of two regions in eastern Ukraine began evacuating citizens to Russia earlier in the day. Putin ordered his Emergency Situations Ministry to Rostov-on-Don, a city in southwest Russia near the border with Ukraine, to set up accommodation for the evacuees.
Western officials have been warning that Moscow is seeking to create a pretext in eastern Ukraine to invade its neighbor.
Biden reiterated that idea during the press conference, saying that Russia was trying to “bait” Ukraine into a war in order to justify an invasion. He said the Kremlin’s claims that Ukraine plans to attack the two regions at a time when Russia has 150,000 troops on its border “defies basic logic.”
In a statement issued on February 18, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry accused Russia of increasing the shelling of government-controlled territories, calling it a provocation.
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“We categorically reject the attempts of Russia to aggravate the already tense security situation. We remain firmly committed to politico-diplomatic settlement and, together with our partners, maximize efforts to reduce the tension and keep the situation in line with diplomatic dialogue,” the statement said.
There have been nearly 600 cease-fire violations in eastern Ukraine in the past 24 hours, including more than 300 explosions, a monitoring team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said on February 18.
An unnamed diplomatic source told Reuters that the shelling was the most since 2015, a year after the start of the long-running conflict between the separatists and the Ukrainian Army.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called the shelling a “big provocation.”
Current and former Western officials have said that Russia would likely try to provoke Ukrainian armed forces in an attempt to justify an invasion.
Videos released nearly simultaneously on February 18 by the de facto heads of the separatist-held parts of the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk announcing the evacuation of citizens seemed to lend that view support.
An investigation by RFE/RL’s Russia Service shows that the videos were actually made on February 16, indicating the sudden evacuation was actually preplanned.
Russia has given passports to tens of thousands of residents of eastern Ukraine, a move the West has slammed. Russia could try to justify an invasion on the pretext of protecting its “citizens” in eastern Ukraine, Western officials say.
The Kremlin has amassed more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders as it seeks to coerce the West into agreeing to a list of security demands, including a ban on Ukraine’s membership in NATO.
The buildup is the largest in Europe since the end of the Cold War, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said.
The Kremlin’s actions have sparked a flurry of diplomacy over the past two months as the United States and Europe seek to deter Russia from invading Ukraine.
The West has rejected Russia’s main demands to end NATO expansion and roll back the alliance’s gains in Central and Eastern Europe, saying sovereign states have the right to choose their own alliances.
However, the United States and Europe have said they are willing to negotiate other demands put forward by Russia, including limitations on missile deployment and military exercises.
Russia has recently said it has begun pulling back some of its troops in the border regions, but those claims have been rejected by Washington several times.
In the latest example, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed on February 18 that it had begun withdrawing more tanks and other armored vehicles from areas near Ukraine’s border after what it called military drills.
“Another military train carrying personnel and military equipment belonging to tank army units of the western military district returned to their permanent bases in the Nizhny Novgorod region after completing scheduled exercises,” the ministry said in a statement.
Separately, it said 10 warplanes were pulled back from the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula.
“Although Russia has announced that it is moving its forces back to garrison, we have yet to see that,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters in Warsaw during a visit to NATO-member Poland on February 18.
“In fact, we see more forces moving into that region, that border region,” he said, adding that the United States had also observed Russian activity such as “moving closer to the border, dispersal of troops, increasing logistical capabilities.”
Meanwhile, Loyd also announced the sale of $ 6 billion in military equipment to Poland, including 250 Abrams battle tanks.
The deal must still be approved by the U.S. Congress, where Poland generally receives widespread bipartisan support.
Austin cited Russia’s massive buildup. “Some of those forces [are] within [321 kilometers] of the Polish border,” he said.
Michael Carpenter, the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, told a meeting in Vienna that “we assess that Russia probably has massed between 169,000-190,000 personnel in and near Ukraine as compared with about 100,000 on January 30.”
Carpenter called the buildup “the most significant military mobilization in Europe since World War II.”
Russian troops have been holding exercises in several locations in recent days, including Belarus, which borders several NATO countries, as well as Ukraine.
Putin will oversee strategic military drills involving intercontinental ballistic missiles this weekend.
When asked about the drills, Biden said that Putin was “focused on trying to convince the world that he has the ability to change the dynamics in Europe in a way that he cannot.”
He said Putin had tried to divide the United States and the West but had failed. The West is united on imposing severe sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine, he said.
“There are many issues that divide our nation and our world, but standing up to Russian aggression is not one of them,” Biden said.
WATCH: Video recorded by Current Time on February 18 shows Russian military equipment and personnel in several areas of the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the German Defense Ministry announced on February 18 that it will place its troops in NATO’s quick-reaction force on a higher alert, to allow them to deploy more quickly should escalating tensions with Russia make it necessary.
The decision was made in consultation with NATO commanders and allies, the ministry said.
“The increased readiness to deploy enables NATO, in case of a further escalation by Russia, to guarantee appropriate reassurance in particular to our Eastern European allies in order to protect allied territory,” the statement said.
Also on February 18, Estonia’s Defense Ministry said the Baltic state had sent U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.
“At the moment, these missiles are more useful for Estonia’s security in defense of Ukraine rather than at a live-fire exercise on an Estonian training area,” Lieutenant General Martin Herem, the commander of the Estonian Defense Forces, said on February 18.
“This is a small step by Estonia in support of Ukraine, but it is a real and tangible contribution to defense against Russian aggression.”
Javelins are shoulder-operated, medium-range missiles that guide themselves after launching, which allows the person shooting the projectile to take cover.
Estonia, along with fellow Baltic NATO members Latvia and Lithuania, last month said it would provide Ukraine with the U.S.-made missiles.
They said they had received clearance from the U.S. State Department to send the U.S.-made missiles and other weapons to Ukraine, which has requested and received Javelin missile systems from the United States in the past.
In London, the British Foreign Ministry said its embassy in Ukraine was being moved away from Kyiv to a temporary site in the western city of Lviv and it told its nationals to leave the country now while commercial transport means are still available.
“Any Russian military action in Ukraine would severely affect the British government’s ability to provide consular assistance in Ukraine,” the ministry said on February 18. “British nationals should not expect increased consular support or help with evacuating in these circumstances.”
The United States has already ordered most of its embassy staff and U.S. citizens to leave the country.