Zelenskiy-Biden Call; Diplomacy Door Still Open: Ukraine Update

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(Bloomberg) — U.S. President Joe Biden will speak Sunday with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Ukraine’s foreign minister earlier downplayed border tensions with Russia, saying there’s been no “pivotal change” in the outlook. On Saturday, Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin of the “severe costs” of any move to invade. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will meet with Putin on Tuesday.

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The hour-long Putin-Biden call, which appeared to made little overall headway, capped a feverish round of talks among national leaders and diplomats after the U.S. said intelligence indicates Russia may attack Ukraine before the Beijing Winter Olympics end in a week. Several countries have urged their citizens to leave Ukraine.

Russia has repeatedly denied it plans an invasion, as the U.S. and its NATO allies warn a buildup of almost 130,000 Russian troops near the Ukrainian border may be preparation to do so, including via Belarus from the north.

Key Developments

  • U.S. Sees China Watching Ukraine Showdown as a Proxy for Taiwan

  • Biden-Putin Call Is Inconclusive Even as Ukraine Tensions Jump

  • Russia Starts Major Military Drills in Belarus as NATO Watches

  • Russia and Europe Are Vital to Each Other When It Comes to Oil

  • What we know so far about potential U.S.-EU sanctions on Russia

  • Where Military Forces Are Assembling Around Russia and Ukraine

All times CET.

Biden Aide Says Door for Diplomacy Remains Open (3:30 p.m.)

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the door to diplomacy with Russia remains open. “We will continue to test the proposition that we can find a diplomatic path forward,” Sullivan said Sunday on CBS. “In parallel to that, we will continue to get ready with our allies and partners to impose swift and severe consequences if Russia moves forward.”

Sullivan reiterated the White House assessment that Russia has built up enough forces to move on Ukraine “essentially at any time.” Russia denies that it plans to further invade Ukraine.

The U.S. could complete the drawdown of its embassy in Kyiv if necessary, though no U.S. forces will be sent to rescue citizens from Ukraine, Sullivan said.

Ukraine Says Zelenskiy, Biden Will Speak Sunday (3:29 p.m.)

U.S. President Joe Biden will speak Sunday with his Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a spokesman for the Ukrainian leader said, a day after Biden spoke for an hour with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Serhiy Nykyforov said the pair plan to talk within a few hours on the security situation and current diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions.

The White House confirmed the call will take place at 10:45 a.m. EST/4:45 p.m. CET.

German President Lays Blame for Tensions on Russia (3:05 p.m.)

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier laid the blame for tensions over Ukraine at the feet of Russia, and urged President Vladimir Putin not to “underestimate the strength of democracy” and the resolve he’s up against.

In an outspoken speech in Berlin moments after he was re-elected to a second term in the mainly ceremonial post, Steinmeier appealed to Putin “to loosen the noose around Ukraine’s neck.”

“We are witnessing the threat of conflict, of war in eastern Europe, and Russia bears the responsibility,” said Steinmeier, a former foreign minister. The Ukrainian people “have the right to a life without fear and threats, of self-determination and sovereignty. No country in the world has the right to destroy that. And we will respond with determination to whomever so tries.”

Russia Concerned at OSCE Monitors’ Ukraine Pullout (2:05 p.m.)

Russia voiced “serious concern” at the decision by some countries to withdraw their observers in the OSCE team monitoring the shaky cease-fire in Ukraine’s separatist Donbas region.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the U.S. of dragging the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s mission into its “militaristic psychosis” to use as a “potential provocation,” according to a social media post on Sunday.

An official in the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic, Vladislav Berdichevsky, said that OSCE monitors from the U.S. and U.K. have received instructions from their governments to depart Donbas, Tass reported.

Finland’s Putin Whisperer Sees a Change (1:25 p.m.)

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told the New York Times in an interview that he had noticed a recent change in Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“His state of mind, the deciding, decisiveness — that is clearly different,” said Niinisto, who spoke at length with Putin last month. He said that he believed Putin felt he had to seize on “the momentum he has now,” the Times reported.

Niinisto said that it was hard to imagine things returning to the way they were, with the likely options now being Russia pressuring Europe and extracting demands from Washington for the foreseeable future, or “warfare,” according to the newspaper. Russia has repeatedly denied it plans to invake Ukraine.

Scholz to Reinforce Consequences in Tuesday’s Putin Meeting (12:13 p.m.)

Chancellor Olaf Scholz will reinforce the considerable consequences for Russia if it invades Ukraine when he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, a German government official said. Putin has repeatedly said that Russia has no intention of invading.

The official didn’t want to comment on recent U.S. intelligence assessments that an invasion may be imminent, saying only that the situation is extremely dangerous and could get out of control. But there’s no need to be resigned to the inevitability of an invasion and talks must continue, the official said.

Scholz will signal that Germany is open to dialogue, with a willingness that Russia puts its security issues on the table. The German government expects dialogue to continue with Putin after Tuesday, the official said. On Monday, Scholz will be in Kyiv to discuss economic support for Ukraine.

Ukrainian Minister Says “Situation Remains Under Control” (8:36 a.m.)

There’s been no “pivotal change” in the situation along Ukraine’s border and occupied territories in the past few days, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Sunday.

Ukraine “continues to actively work with our partners and inside the country,” Kuleba said, adding that diplomacy remains the only way to resolve the crisis. “Ukraine is not alone. The situation remains under control, and Ukraine is ready for to any scenarios.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy spoke Saturday with France’s Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau about allied efforts to de-escalate the border tension. He spoke Sunday with European Council President Charles Michel.

Israeli Airlines Boost Kyiv Flights as Citizens Asked to Leave (8:10 a.m.)

Israel’s El Al and Arkia airlines have scheduled additional flights into and out of Kyiv at the foreign ministry’s request after Israel’s government urged citizens to leave Ukraine as soon as possible.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has established a crisis management team, citing “continued tensions and the fear of escalation.” The Israeli embassy in Kyiv continues to operate with a full team of diplomatic staff, according to a statement.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday called on Israelis not to take unneeded risks. “Do not wait for a situation in which you will very much want to return but will be unable to do so,” he said. Be responsible for your lives.”

U.S. Denies Russia’s Stray Submarine Claim (10:21 p.m.)

The Pentagon denied Russia’s claim that a U.S. submarine was intercepted in Russian waters near the Kuril Islands, which prompted the Defense Ministry in Moscow to summon the U.S. military attache.

“There is no truth to the Russian claims of our operations in their territorial waters,” Navy Captain Kyle Raines, a spokesman for the U.S. Indo-Pacific command, said by email. While declining to comment on the precise location of U.S. submarines, he said “we do fly, sail, and operate safely in international waters.”

Biden Warns Putin on Call of Heavy Price (7:17 p.m.)

U.S. President Joe Biden again warned Russian President Vladimir Putin in an hour-long call on Saturday that any move to invade Ukraine would be met with a strong response that would impose “severe costs” on Moscow, the White House said.

Biden also told Putin during their conversation — their first direct exchange since late December — that the U.S. remained ready to find a diplomatic solution to the tensions over Russia’s military buildup near the Ukrainian border. An invasion, he said, would mean “widespread human suffering.”

While the Kremlin characterized the talks as businesslike and balanced, briefings by both sides afterward indicated that Biden and Putin stuck to their familiar talking points, proving few clues as to where things go from here.

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