U.S. says diplomacy still open to end Ukraine standoff with Russia

The United States said the diplomatic path remained open to end a standoff with Moscow over Ukraine but said the risk of Russian military action was high enough to warrant pulling US embassy staff out of Kyiv.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke after talks on Saturday with Japanese and South Korean counterparts, following Washington’s warning that Russia’s military, which has more than 100,000 troops massed near Ukraine, could invade at any moment.

Moscow, which has repeatedly denied it plans to invade and said it is responding to aggression by NATO allies, has dismissed those warnings as “hysteria.”

“The diplomatic path remains open. The way for Moscow to show that it wants to pursue that path is simple. It should de-escalate, rather than escalate,” Blinken said after his meetings in the US Pacific archipelago of Hawaii.

In an hour-long call on Saturday, President Joe Biden told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that the West would respond decisively to any invasion of Ukraine, adding such a step would produce widespread suffering and isolate Moscow.

Neither side said there had been any breakthroughs. A senior Biden administration official said the call was professional and substantive, but that there was no fundamental change.

The Kremlin said Putin told Biden that Washington had failed to take Russia’s main concerns into account and it had received no “substantial answer” on key elements of its security demands.

Biden is expected to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the phone later on Sunday, the White House said Sunday.

Washington ordered most of its embassy staff on Saturday to leave Ukraine immediately due to the threat of an invasion.

Many of Washington’s European allies and other countries have also been scaling back or evacuating staff from their Kyiv missions and have urged citizens to leave or avoid travel to Ukraine.

US staff at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) began leaving by car from the rebel-held city of Donetsk in east Ukraine on Sunday, a Reuters witness said.

The OSCE conducts operations in Ukraine including a civilian monitoring mission in Russian-backed, self-proclaimed separatist republics in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where a war that erupted in 2014 has killed more than 14,000 people.

Putin is seeking security guarantees from the United States and NATO that include blocking Ukraine’s entry into NATO, refraining from missile deployments near Russia’s borders, and scaling back NATO’s military infrastructure in Europe to 1997 levels.

Washington regards many of the proposals as non-starters but has pushed the Kremlin to discuss them jointly with Washington and its European allies.

The White House said Biden was due to compare notes with French President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday.

After Macron’s call with Putin, a French presidency official said there were no indications from what Putin told Macron that Russia is preparing an offensive against Ukraine.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will tell Putin at a meeting this week that Russia will face “heavy consequences” if it attacks Ukraine, a government source said on Sunday.

Scholz travels to Kyiv on Monday to meet Zelenskyy and to Moscow on Tuesday.

“The chancellor will make clear that any attack on Ukraine will have heavy consequences … and that one should not underestimate the unity between the European Union, United States and Britain,” the German government source said.

Scholz would tell Putin the troop buildup could “only be interpreted as a threat,” the source told a briefing with journalists, adding: “I do not expect concrete results but these direct talks are important.”

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