Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are due to talk by phone on February 2 amid a flurry of diplomacy meant to try to ease tensions over Moscow’s troop build-up at the border with Ukraine that have raised fears of a possible invasion.
Johnson visited Kyiv for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 1. He noted that more than 100,000 Russian troops are gathering on Ukraine’s border “in perhaps the biggest demonstration of hostility toward Ukraine in our lifetimes.”
Johnson warned that London has a package of sanctions and other measures ready to go “the moment the first Russian toe cap crosses further into Ukrainian territory.”
He also said Western countries “are keen to engage in dialogue,” but added that “we have the sanctions ready.” He again urged Russia to step back and choose a path of diplomacy, saying he believes that is still possible.
Putin on February 1 made his first significant public remarks in weeks on the crisis sparked by the massive buildup near its border with Ukraine estimated at more than 100,000 Russian troops. Russia denies that it is planning to invade but said it could take unspecified military action unless its security demands are met.
The Kremlin is “carefully analyzing the written responses received from the United States and NATO,” Putin said, but added that it was “already clear that fundamental Russian concerns ended up being ignored.”
At the same time Putin said: “I hope that we will eventually find a solution, although we realize that it’s not going to be easy.”
Russia has demanded legally binding guarantees from the United States and NATO that Ukraine will never join the bloc, that it will halt the deployment of weapons systems near Russian borders, and that its forces will be rolled back from Eastern Europe.
The United States rejected Russia’s demand to bar Ukraine from NATO but offered what it called a new “diplomatic path” out of the crisis.
“We did not see adequate consideration of our three key demands regarding the prevention of NATO expansion, the refusal to deploy strike facilities near Russia’s borders, and the return of the bloc’s military infrastructure in Europe to the state in 1997,” Putin said.
Putin spoke during a joint news conference with visiting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who maintains friendly ties with Putin. Orban, whose country is a member of both NATO and the European Union, said he believes there is room for a compromise.
“I got convinced today that the existing differences in positions can be bridged and it is possible to sign an agreement that would guarantee peace, guarantee Russia’s security and is acceptable for NATO member states as well,” Orban said.
Earlier in a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the “immediate” de-escalation and withdrawal of troops by Russia from areas near Ukraine’s borders.
Blinken further reiterated Washington’s commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the right of all countries to determine their own foreign policy and alliances, the State Department said in a statement.
Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and has been backing separatists in the Donbas who have been engaged in a military confrontation with Ukrainian government forces that has killed more than 13,200 people over the past eight years.
Blinken “emphasized that further invasion of Ukraine by Russia would be met with swift and severe consequences and urged Russia to pursue a diplomatic path,” the statement said.
Lavrov said he told Blinken that Russia would continue insisting on its demands, including that the West stick to its security “obligations,” and added that: “Blinken agreed that there is subject for further discussion.”
Zelenskiy warned that Ukraine’s army had significantly improved its capabilities after nearly eight years of battling Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country.
He also said it would be a “tragedy” if an escalation begins. “It will not be a war between Ukraine and Russia, it will be a full-scale war in Europe,” he said.
He reiterated his calls for Ukrainians to remain calm and for Moscow to de-escalate the tensions by withdrawing its forces stationed near the border.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also visited Kyiv on February 1.
Speaking at a news conference with Zelenskiy, Morawiecki said Poland would hand over tens of thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition, light mortars, air defense systems, and surveillance drones.
The announcement came as Ukraine said it had formed a new political alliance with Britain and Poland./RFE/RL/