The western leaders says Russia ‘can still step back from its threats’ as Germany’s Olaf Scholz heads to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin
US troops in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, prepare to deploy to Europe as the crisis between Russia and Ukraine escalates. Photograph: Allison Joyce/AFP/Getty Images
Boris Johnson and Joe Biden believe there remains “a crucial window for diplomacy and for Russia to step back from its threats towards Ukraine” after a 40-minute call between the two leaders on Monday night.
Britain said the pair emphasised the importance of unity and, while neither the UK nor the US will send troops to defend Ukraine, they insisted that any further Russian incursion “would result in a protracted crisis for Russia with far-reaching damage for both Russia and the world”.
The sense of an opportunity for diplomacy was echoed by Vladimir Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who told the Russian president that talks “certainly should not continue indefinitely. But at this stage I would suggest that they continue and be intensified.”
German chancellor Olaf Scholz was due to land in Moscow on Tuesday in search of a diplomatic solution to avoid a war in Ukraine as the west and Russia signalled tentative hopes of an easing in the tense standoff.
His talks with Vladimir Putin are the latest in an intense diplomatic scramble to dissuade the Russian leader from attacking Ukraine.
Russia has massed an estimated 145,000 troops along various stretches of its border with Ukraine, in Belarus where joint military drills are taking place, and in Crimea, annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
On Monday night, the US offered Ukraine a sovereign loan guarantee of up to $1bn to help its economy navigate the tensions. Secretary of state Antony Blinken said: “This offer … will bolster Ukraine’s ability to ensure economic stability, growth, and prosperity for its people in the face of Russia’s destabilising behaviour.”
The state department also advised US citizens to immediately leave Belarus and the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria, “citing the unusual and concerning Russian military activity” along their borders with Ukraine.
Russian forces continue to mass near the border. British officials estimate that a further 14 Russian battalions are heading towards Ukraine, each numbering about 800 troops, on top of the 100 battalions deployed near the borders – a force already believed capable of launching an invasion.
UK ministers believe the Russian president has not yet decided to attack and may never do so but the continued buildup prompted Johnson to chair a Cobra emergency meeting on Tuesday.
Earlier, the British prime minister said: “This is a very, very dangerous, difficult situation. We are on the edge of a precipice, but there is still time for President Putin to step back.”
He said it was important for western allies to remain united in the face of Russian pressure. Ukraine’s future membership of Nato could not be “bargained away” as part of western leaders’ efforts, he added.
The office of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on Monday released a decree calling for all villages and towns in Ukraine to fly the national flag on Wednesday, amid speculation it is the day Russia might invade. It also called for the entire nation to sing the national anthem at 10am, and for an increase in the salaries of soldiers and border guards.
“They tell us February 16 will be the day of the attack. We will make it a day of unity,” Zelenskiy said in a video address to the nation. “They are trying to frighten us by yet again naming a date for the start of military action … On that day, we will hang our national flags, wear yellow and blue banners, and show the whole world our unity.”
Zelenskiy has long said that, while he believes Russia is threatening to attack his country, the likelihood of an imminent invasion has been overstated by western allies, responding to Moscow’s efforts to intimidate Ukraine and sow panic.