Kyiv has urged the west to remain “vigilant and firm” in its talks with Russia, as Joe Biden announced a small troop deployment to eastern Europe amid fears Moscow could invade Ukraine.
Washington’s top defence officials warned on Friday that the Kremlin had massed enough troops and hardware at the border to threaten the whole of Ukraine, but called for further diplomatic efforts to avert a “horrific” conflict.
Western leaders are scrambling to defuse the crisis by reaching out to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, while trying to keep the pressure up by vowing unprecedented sanctions should he send in his forces.
As the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, on Friday urged his western partners to avoid stirring “panic” over the massive Russian troop buildup, Putin and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, agreed on the need for de-escalation.
According to a Macron aide, Putin told the French leader in a call lasting more than an hour that he had “no offensive plans”.
In Washington, Biden said he would nevertheless soon send a small number of US troops to bolster the Nato presence in eastern Europe as tensions remain heightened.
The US already has tens of thousands of troops stationed across mostly western Europe.
France said on Saturday that it was planning to send hundreds of troops to Romania, an eastern Nato ally, as part of a deployment first touted by Macron earlier this month.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, on Saturday issued a call for the west to remain “vigilant and firm in contacts with the Russian side” in a conversation with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian.
The talks underlined the need to “refrain from steps that could fuel anxiety” in Ukrainian society and “undermine the financial stability” of the post-Soviet country, a Ukrainian statement said.
Le Drian is expected to visit Ukraine with his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock on 7 and 8 February as part of a flurry of diplomacy.
Boris Johnson is expected to speak with Putin before heading to the region and adding to the chorus of western leaders urging him to back down.
The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, is due in Kyiv on Tuesday to meet the president and prime minister.
On Saturday, Ireland’s foreign affairs minister said Russia is to move its planned military drills outside Ireland’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Simon Coveney said he has received assurances from his Russian counterpart that the drills will not take place off the south-west coast of Ireland.
He tweeted: “This week I wrote to my counterpart, the Minister of Defence of Russia, to request a reconsideration of naval exercises off the Irish coast. This evening I received a letter confirming the Russian exercises will be relocated outside of Ireland’s EEZ. I welcome this response.”
The Russian ambassador to Ireland, Yury Filatov, said: “In response to the requests from the Irish government as well as from the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation, the minister of defence of the Russian Federation, Sergey Shoigu, has made a decision.
“As a gesture of goodwill, to relocate the exercises by the Russian Navy, planned for 3 to 8 February, outside the Irish exclusive economic zone, with the aim not to hinder fishing activities by the Irish vessels in the traditional fishing areas.”
Since October, Russia has amassed more than 100,000 combat troops and equipment, as well as support forces, along its frontier with Ukraine and more recently in Belarus, which borders Ukraine on the north.
Western officials say Russia has also mustered more air and sea assets in the region, creating a complex threat unseen since the cold war.
Moscow has demanded wide-ranging security guarantees, including that Ukraine is never allowed to join Nato. The west has rejected Russia’s key demands such as stopping new members joining the alliance, but has laid down a series of areas where it sees room to negotiate with the Kremlin.
To Macron, Putin made clear that the written responses from the west to his demands this week had fallen short of Russia’s expectations, the Kremlin said. “The US and Nato responses did not take into account Russia’s fundamental concerns including preventing Nato’s expansion,” Putin said, according to the Kremlin’s readout of the call.
He added that the west had ignored the “key question” that no country should strengthen its security at the expense of others, adding Russia would “carefully study” the responses, “after which it will decide on further actions”.
Russia has also demanded a pullback of Nato forces deployed to eastern European and ex-Soviet countries that joined the alliance after the cold war. Ukraine has turned increasingly to the west since Moscow seized the Crimea peninsula in 2014 and began fuelling a separatist conflict in the east of the country that has cost more than 13,000 lives.
In the face of Russia’s latest buildup, some western allies – led by the US – have stepped up deliveries of arms to Kyiv that could be used to ward off an attack. On Friday, Ukrainian soldiers dressed in winter camouflage at a snowbound range in the far west of the country test fired new “tank killer” missiles sent by Britain.