With the risk of war looming larger, Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden held a high-stakes telephone call on Saturday as a tense world watched and worried that an invasion of Ukraine could begin within days.

Before talking to Biden, Putin had a telephone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, who met him in Moscow earlier in the week to try to resolve the biggest security crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War. A Kremlin summary of the call suggested that little progress was made towards cooling down the tensions.

The closely watched call between Biden and Putin lasted just over an hour, according to the White House. Biden conducted the call from Camp David. The White House insisted that Russia faces “swift and severe costs” if its troops carry out an invasion. No more details of the discussion were available.

In a sign that American officials were getting ready for a worst-case scenario, the United States announced plans to evacuate its embassy in the Ukrainian capital, and Britain joined other European nations in urging its citizens to leave Ukraine.

Russia has massed well over 100,000 troops near the Ukraine border and has sent troops to exercises in neighbouring Belarus but denies that it intends to launch an offensive against Ukraine.

The timing of any possible Russian military action remained a key question.

The US picked up intelligence that Russia is looking at Wednesday as a target date, according to a US official familiar with the findings. The official, who was not authorised to speak publicly and did so only on condition of anonymity, would not say how definitive the intelligence was.

The White House publicly underscored that the US does not know with certainty whether Putin is committed to invasion. However, US officials said anew that Russia’s buildup of firepower near Ukraine has reached the point where it could invade on short notice.

A Kremlin statement about the Putin-Macron call referred to provocative speculations about an allegedly planned Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia has consistently denied that it plans military action against its neighbour.

Putin also complained in the call that the United States and Nato have not responded satisfactorily to Russian demands that Ukraine be prohibited from joining the military alliance and that Nato pull back forces from Eastern Europe.

Biden has said the US military will not enter a war in Ukraine, but he has promised severe economic sanctions against Moscow, in concert with international allies.


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