Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday called for Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet him and seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis in the face of increasingly dire warnings that Russia plans to invade his country.
“I don’t know what the president of the Russian Federation wants, so I am proposing a meeting,” Zelenskyy said at the Munich Security Conference, where he also met with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris. Zelenskyy said Russia could pick the location for the talks.
“Ukraine will continue to follow only the diplomatic path for the sake of a peaceful settlement.”
There was no immediate response from the Kremlin.
Zelenskyy spoke hours after separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine ordered a full military mobilization on Saturday while Western leaders made increasingly dire warnings that a Russian invasion of its neighbor appeared imminent.
In new signs of fears that a war could start within days, Germany and Austria told their citizens to leave Ukraine. German air carrier Lufthansa canceled flights to the capital, Kyiv, and to Odessa, a Black Sea port that could be a key target in an invasion.
NATO’s liaison office in Kyiv said it was relocating staff to Brussels and to the western Ukraine city of Lviv. Meanwhile, top Ukrainian military officials came under a shelling attack during a tour of the front of the nearly eight-year separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The officials fled to a bomb shelter before hustling from the area, according to an Associated Press -AP.
Violence in eastern Ukraine has spiked in recent days as Ukraine and the two regions held by the rebels each accused the other of escalation. Russia on Saturday said at least two shells fired from a government-held part of eastern Ukraine landed across the border, but Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba dismissed that claim as “a fake statement.”
Sporadic violence has broken out for years along the line separating Ukrainian forces from the Russia-backed rebels, but the recent shelling and bombing spike could set off a full-scale war.
The United States and many European countries have alleged for months that Russia, which has moved about 150,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, is trying to create pretexts to invade.
“They are uncoiling and are now poised to strike,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Saturday during a visit to Lithuania.
U.S. President Joe Biden said late Friday that based on the latest American intelligence, he was now “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine and assault the capital.
“As of this moment, I’m convinced he’s made the decision,” Biden said. “We have reason to believe that.” He reiterated that the assault could occur in the “coming days.”
Meanwhile, Russia conducted massive nuclear drills on Saturday. The Kremlin said Putin, who pledged to protect Russia’s national interests against what it sees as encroaching Western threats, was watching the drills together with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko from the situation room.
Notably, the planned exercise involves the Crimea-based Black Sea Fleet. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula after seizing it from Ukraine in 2014. .
Underscoring the West’s concerns of an imminent invasion, a U.S. defense official said an estimated 40% to 50% of the ground forces deployed in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border have moved into attack positions closer to the border.
The shift has been underway for about a week, other officials have said, and does not necessarily mean Putin has decided to begin an invasion. The defense official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. military assessments.
The official also said the number of Russian ground units known as battalion tactical groups in the border area had grown to as many as 125, up from 83 two weeks ago. Each group has 750 to 1,000 soldiers.
Lines of communication between Moscow and the West remain open: the American and Russian defense chiefs spoke Friday. French President Emmanuel Macron scheduled a phone call with Putin on Sunday. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed to meet next week.