Russian forces remain on the brink of invading Ukraine, US officials warned on Saturday, after Joe Biden failed to make a breakthrough during an hour-long phone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
The US president made a last-ditch attempt to persuade Putin not to attack Ukraine, warning that western countries would impose “severe” economic sanctions if he does.
But the White House said that Biden’s efforts had not changed the Kremlin’s position and an imminent attack remained a “distinct possibility”. US officials warned on Friday that Russia could launch a full-scale invasion as early as next week.
A senior administration official said on Saturday: “The call between the two presidents was professional and substantive, and lasted a bit over an hour. But there was no fundamental change in the dynamic which has been unfolding now for several weeks.”
The official added: “The presidents agreed their teams will stay engaged in the days ahead. Russia may decide to pursue military action anyway, we view that as a distinct possibility.”
Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy adviser, said the call was “balanced and businesslike” but accused the US and its western allies of “unprecedented hysteria” in claiming Russia was planning to invade Ukraine, which he said was “absurd”.
Putin agreed to consider some of Biden’s suggestions which the US hopes will satisfy Russia’s security grievances with Nato, Ushakov added. But he complained that Ukraine’s western backers were increasing the chance of open conflict by supplying it with sophisticated weaponry and modernising its armed forces.
Biden told Putin that the US and Russia needed to put their differences aside to “support peace and security” and find a way to avoid “the worst scenario” in Ukraine, Ushakov said.
The call between Biden and Putin was part of a flurry of diplomatic activity on Saturday as western leaders attempted to persuade Moscow to withdraw military forces from around Ukraine’s borders.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, also called Putin, telling him that “a sincere dialogue was not compatible with an escalation”, according to the Elysée. Macron was “trying step by step to lower the pressure”, the official said, adding that the Russian president did not appear to have changed his position.
The Kremlin said Putin and Macron discussed “provocative speculations about planning for a supposed Russian invasion”, the west’s provision of weapons to Ukraine and “creating pretexts for possible aggressive actions in the Donbas by Ukrainian armed forces”.
Earlier, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, spoke to his counterpart Sergei Lavrov. German chancellor Olaf Scholz plans to visit Kyiv on Monday before meeting Putin in Moscow on Tuesday.
Putin has accused the west of ignoring Russia’s demand that Nato roll back its eastward expansion and failing to push Ukraine to fulfil its obligations under the long-stalled Minsk treaty governing the Donbas peace process.
On Saturday Putin also discussed Russia’s security demands and “certain bilateral issues” with Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, the Kremlin said.
While western leaders tried to avert war, governments were pulling out diplomatic and military personnel from Ukraine.
The US state department said most of its staff would leave its embassy in Kyiv, while American citizens would be offered emergency assistance from the western city of Lviv.
Maria Zakharova, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said Moscow had decided to “optimise” its staff at its Kyiv embassy and three consulates in Ukraine “out of caution over possible provocations from the Kyiv regime or third countries”.
Germany and Spain called on their citizens to leave Ukraine. The German foreign ministry said it was temporarily closing a consulate in the eastern city of Dnipro and relocating it to Lviv. Its embassy in Kyiv will remain open.
The US and UK also said they would withdraw the limited numbers of troops who were training Ukrainian forces.
Melinda Simmons, UK ambassador to Ukraine, said she would stay in Kyiv. Dutch airline KLM announced it was cancelling its Ukraine flights and would not enter the country’s airspace.
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, called for calm.
“Today, the best friend for enemies is panic in our country, and all this information, which only helps panic, does not help us,” he said, speaking from the southern region of Kherson, bordering Russian-occupied Crimea.
In a speech, Viktor Orban, Hungary’s leader, warned of the likelihood of a refugee crisis in Europe if Russia were to invade Ukraine and said his government was preparing for the consequences of a war. But he warned European leaders that threatening Moscow with sanctions was “a dead end”.
“Refraining from co-operation [with Russia], completely handing over huge economic opportunities [in Russia] to the Chinese is a strategic mistake,” he said. He also called on Europe to build up its military strength.
Though the White House believes Putin has not made a final decision, Russia has built up more than 130,000 troops along its border with Ukraine and in neighbouring Belarus, as well as weaponry that could be used for an assault on Kyiv.
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin, Victor Mallet in Paris and Marton Dunai in Budapest