KYIV, Ukraine —
President Biden said Friday he was convinced Russian leader Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine, as the situation in the former Soviet republic took a more ominous turn toward war.
“We believe that they will target Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million innocent people,” Biden said in a somber White House address. “We’re calling out Russia’s plans loudly and repeatedly, not because we want a conflict, but because we’re doing everything in our power to remove any reasons that Russia may give to justify invading Ukraine.”
Though Biden said “diplomacy is always a possibility,” the president’s admission that he is “convinced” that Putin has already made a decision to invade neighboring Ukraine left little hope that Western powers might avert a deadly, disruptive and economically damaging conflict.
The comments followed similar admonitions from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken in Munich, Germany, where America’s top diplomat said the Kremlin’s plan to create a pretext for invading Ukraine “is already in play,” alluding to claims Friday by Russian separatists that they were victims of artillery shelling and sabotage.
The showdown with Putin stems from the Russian president’s demand that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization agree to not admit Ukraine as a member. The U.S. and other members of NATO have rebuffed that suggestion, saying they will not agree to bar a sovereign country from seeking to join the alliance.
Biden administration officials have said the U.S. will not send troops to defend Ukraine but have promised that Russia will face punishing sanctions and will be ostracized from the international community should it attack.
“We will hold Russia accountable for its actions,” said Biden, who spoke with Western leaders by phone before his address. “The West is united and resolved. We’re ready to impose severe sanctions on Russia if it further invades Ukraine. But I say again, Russia can still choose diplomacy. It is not too late to de-escalate and return to the negotiating table.”
U.S. and Western officials have warned repeatedly in recent days that Russia and its allies in Ukraine are likely to deploy disinformation — lying about Ukrainian attacks or even staging them — to create a pretext to invade the country. The U.S. continues “to see more and more disinformation” by Russia and separatists “claiming that Ukraine is planning to launch a massive offensive attack,” Biden said. “There is no evidence to support those assertions, and they defy basic logic.”
Ukrainian officials asserted that separatists’ claims on Friday of being attacked by artillery shells, acts of sabotage and a car bombing were bogus. An American security official, Anne Neuberger, said Russia had already begun launching limited cyberattacks this week on the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and state-owned banks, while warning that American businesses and government networks could be next.
American and European leaders continued to present a unified front as Russia, which has amassed 150,000 troops around Ukraine, announced weekend drills that would test the “reliability” of its nuclear weapons.
The more immediate danger seemed to be from so-called false-flag operations — incidents that Moscow could use as an excuse to launch a blitz-style assault into Ukraine. On Friday morning, Russian media and outlets affiliated with separatists in the disputed eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk claimed Ukrainian forces were hitting them with artillery. They also reported that authorities had foiled what they described as two incidents of sabotage.
The situation grew more serious at 7 p.m. local time when authorities in Donetsk claimed a car bomb exploded in a parking lot near a government building. The sound of the explosion could “be heard across the entire city,” according to a statement from Donetsk authorities, which urged residents to “remain calm, be vigilant and avoid moving about the city.”
The images of the explosion and claims of shelling, as well as sabotage attacks, could not be independently verified by The Times.
Denis Pushilin, the self-proclaimed leader of the separatist republic in Donetsk, declared that Ukrainian forces were poised to attack the Russian-backed enclave and on Friday ordered a mass evacuation of some areas under separatist control.
Evacuations were to begin in the evening, with women, children and the elderly being the first sent to safety. The refugees will be housed in the southern Russian region of Rostov, where Russian state media said Putin had dispatched his Emergencies Minister to set up camps.
In videos posted to social media, the blare of air raid sirens could be heard all over Donetsk, with multicolored buses lining up to transport residents to refugee centers. Moscow said all those evacuated would receive 10,000 rubles, or about $130.
Ukrainian officials, who have ordered their troops to avoid measures that might been seen as provocative, rushed to declare that they had no plans to attack.
“Militants backed by the Russian Federation continue to aggravate the situation by deliberately misleading residents of the temporarily occupied territories,” Lt. Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyy, the commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, wrote on his official Facebook page.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that allegations of an offensive operation “are divorced from reality.”
The crisis has rekindled tensions with Russia reminiscent of the Cold War as American and European leaders contemplate a conflict that would likely rattle the global economy and risk setting off a wider war should there be any miscalculations.
The mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, speaking from the audience at the Munich Security Conference where Blinken was onstage, thanked allies for their financial support but said “what we need right now [is] defensive weapons.”
“We’re ready to fight with our families,” he said, faulting Western countries for leaving his country vulnerable despite a 1994 security agreement that led the nation to give up its large supply of Soviet-era nuclear weapons.
Blinken responded that he appreciated “not only the substance of your words, but also the emotion behind them,” as he pointed to $650 million in weapons support from the United States last year and extolled the virtue of solidarity.
Though hopes for a diplomatic resolution were thinning, Blinken agreed to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov late next week if Russia holds off on any invasion.
“But if Russia takes military action before that, it will be clear that they have slammed the door shut on diplomacy,” Biden said.
On the sidelines of the Munich conference, Vice President Kamala Harris met with Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO, which is coordinating efforts by the leading Western democracies to fortify Ukraine’s defenses and, with the threat of severe economic sanctions, to deter Putin from violating its sovereignty.
“This is a dynamic moment in time,” Harris said at the start of the meeting, asserting that Putin’s buildup of troops has bolstered NATO. “We remain, of course, supportive of diplomacy as it relates to the dialogue and discussions we’ve had with Russia.”
Harris also met with the leaders of the Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which border Russia and became NATO members after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“We have prioritized the importance of diplomacy,” she said. “The onus is on Russia at this point to demonstrate that it is serious in that regard.”
Harris affirmed America’s commitment to Article V of the NATO charter, which states that an attack against one member will be treated as an attack on all. All three Baltic leaders emphasized the importance of remaining unified in the face of Russian aggression.
“We have all lost our independence to Russia once, and we don’t want it to happen again,” said Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s prime minister.
“It’s about democracy, really,” she added. “Why Russia is doing this is because [Putin] doesn’t want democracy to prevail in Ukraine.”
Friday’s meetings set the stage for Harris’ speech to the full conference Saturday, where, aides say, she plans to emphasize the importance of a united NATO and assert that Putin, by testing the alliance, has strengthened it, and that an invasion of Ukraine would leave Russia far weaker economically.
She will also meet Saturday with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who, despite the possibility of a Russian assault, plans to fly to Munich for several hours of meetings. Additionally, Harris is scheduled to meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Bierman reported from Dalton, Mass., Bulos from Kyiv and Stokols from Munich.