Belarus has said that 30,000 Russian troops participating in joint drills would stay in the country indefinitely, as western leaders initiated a fresh effort to maintain dialogue with Vladimir Putin in a bid to deter an attack on Ukraine.
The announcement by Belarus came on the day the joint military exercises were scheduled to end and added to western fears that Russia is planning an invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow has massed as many as 190,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, including those participating in the Belarus drills, despite previously pledging they would return to base.
French president Emmanuel Macron spoke to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Sunday, in what a French official described as “part of the last possible and necessary efforts to avoid a major conflict”.
France said that Putin had agreed with Macron on an “intense effort” to organise a trilateral meeting on Monday between Russia, Ukraine and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) with the aim of enforcing the ceasefire on the 500-km “contact line” in eastern Ukraine.
The conflict between Russia-backed separatists and government forces in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, has escalated in recent days. The separatists have accused Ukrainian troops of breaching the ceasefire and ordered an evacuation of civilians, in a move Kyiv and its western allies said could be a prelude to a Russian invasion. Kyiv has reported heavy shelling on its positions on the frontline.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, said US President Joe Biden was “prepared to meet President Putin at any time, in any format, if that can help prevent a war”.
The Kremlin said Russia’s president “recognised the importance” of finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis “through the foreign ministries and political advisers of the Normandy format countries”, a reference to Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France.
“It falls upon these contacts to ensure the ceasefire is restored and progress in regulating the Donbas conflict is made,” it said, without confirming any specific agreement on more talks.
Putin blamed clashes in eastern Ukraine on “provocations by Ukrainian security forces,” as the US accused Moscow of creating false pretexts for an attack.
Belarusian defence minister Viktor Khrenin said on Sunday that Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko made the decision to extend the drills for an unspecified period because of “increasing military activity on [the countries’] eastern borders and the worsening situation in the Donbas”.
Emphasising Biden’s willingness to talk to the Russian leader, Blinken told CBS: “Even if the die is cast, until it’s settled, until we know that the tanks are rolling, the planes are flying and the aggression has fully begun, we’re going to do everything we can to prevent it.
“But we’re prepared either way, and we’re prepared with a response that will have massive consequences for Russia if it actually carries this through.”
Blinken said Washington believed that Putin had decided to invade Ukraine, but that diplomacy was still an option. “As we’ve described, everything leading up to the actual invasion appears to be taking place,” said Blinken. “All of these false flag operations, all of these provocations, to create justification. All of that is already in train.”
US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin said Russia could move “a significant amount of combat power very quickly to take Kyiv”.
“We see a lot of tanks, armoured vehicles, we see a lot of artillery, we see rocket forces. If he employs that kind of combat power, it will certainly create enormous casualties within a civilian population,” Austin told ABC News.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told state television that “tensions have been ramped up to the maximum [on] the contact line” in the Donbas. “Any spark, any unplanned event or minor provocation could lead to irreversible consequences,” he said.
But Peskov said western claims that Russia was planning an imminent invasion were “provocative” and “could have disastrous results”. He repeated Putin’s denials that Russia would attack Ukraine.
“Russia, which has lived through so many wars, is the last country in Europe that wants to so much as say the word ‘war’ aloud,” he said.
Peskov claimed that western support was encouraging Kyiv “to solve the Donbas problem by force”, an accusation Ukraine has repeatedly denied.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson said the UK and US could target Russia’s access to foreign currency as part of a sanctions regime.
“We are, with our American friends, going to stop them trading in pounds and dollars,” he told the BBC’s Sunday Morning television programme.
“We are making sure that we open up the Russian doll of property ownership, of company ownership, in London and see who’s behind everything.”
Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London and Aime Williams in Washington