By LORI HINNANT, JIM HEINTZ and ZEKE MILLER
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia on Sunday rescinded earlier promises to withdraw tens of thousands of its troops from Ukraine’s northern border, a move that U.S. leaders say has brought Russia closer to what they called it a planned invasion of Ukraine. Residents of the Ukrainian capital filled a golden-domed cathedral to pray for peace.
Russia’s action extends what it said were military exercises, originally scheduled to end on Sunday, which have brought around 30,000 Russian troops to Belarus, Ukraine’s northern neighbor. They are among at least 150,000 Russian troops currently deployed outside Ukraine’s borders, along with tanks, fighter jets, artillery and other war materials.
The continued deployment of Russian forces in Belarus has raised fears they could be used to sweep through Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a city of about 3 million people less than three hours away.
In Kyiv, outdoor life continued as usual for many on a balmy winter Sunday, with brunches and church services ahead of what US President Joe Biden said late last week as a Russian attack already decided.
Katerina Spanchak, who fled an area of eastern Ukraine when it was captured by Russian-allied separatists, was among worshipers crammed into the capital’s St. Michael’s Monastery, smoky from lit candles by the faithful, to pray that Ukraine be spared.
“We all love life and we are all united by our love of life,” Spanchak said, pausing to collect himself. “We should appreciate it every day. That’s why I think everything will be fine.
“Our common prayers will help escape this unfolding tragedy,” said another worshiper, who identified himself only by his first name, Oleh.
A U.S. official said on Sunday that Biden’s claim that Putin made the decision to deploy Russian forces to Ukraine was based on intelligence that Russian frontline commanders had been ordered to begin final preparations. ‘an attack. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive information.
The United States and many European countries have for weeks accused Putin of building up the forces he needs to invade Ukraine – a western-facing democracy that has sought to break out of Russia’s orbit – and is now trying to create pretexts to invade. The United States and many European countries have for weeks accused Putin of building up the forces he needs to invade Ukraine – a western-facing democracy that has sought to break out of Russia’s orbit – and is now trying to create pretexts to invade.
Western nations have threatened massive sanctions if Putin does.
Western nations have threatened massive sanctions if Putin does. U.S. officials on Sunday defended their decision to suspend their planned financial sanctions against Russia ahead of any invasion, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday impassioned the West to do more.
“If you pull the trigger on that deterrent, well, it no longer exists as a deterrent,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Fox of the sanctions threat from Washington.
Russia held nuclear drills on Saturday as well as conventional drills in Belarus, and has ongoing naval drills off the Black Sea coast.
The announcement that Russia was backtracking on its promise to withdraw its forces from Belarus came after two days of heavy shelling along a line of contact between Ukrainian soldiers and Russia’s allied separatists in eastern Russia. Ukraine, an area that Ukraine and the West fear is the flashpoint in sparking conflict.
Biden convened the National Security Council at the White House on Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine. White House officials released no immediate details of their roughly two-hour discussion.
“We are talking about the potential for war in Europe,” US Vice President Kamala Harris said Sunday at a security conference in Munich, Germany, which saw urgent consultations among world leaders on the crisis. “It’s been over 70 years, and in those 70 years…there has been peace and security.”
European and American officials insisted they were still pursuing what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described as last-ditch diplomacy.
Zelenskyy called on Twitter for a ceasefire on Sunday. Russia has denied plans to invade, but the Kremlin did not respond to Zelenskyy’s offer to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday.
After a call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin accused Ukraine – wrongly, according to observers on the spot – of escalating bombardments along the line of contact and NATO of having “injected weapons and modern ammunition” in Ukraine. The Kremlin statement only mentioned a ceasefire in passing and made no mention of Zelensky’s call for a meeting.
Macron, the leader of European efforts to broker a peaceful resolution with Russia, also spoke separately with Zelenskyy, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and with Biden. Macron’s office said the Ukrainian and Russian leaders agreed to work towards a diplomatic solution “in the coming days and weeks.”
Blinken, the head of US diplomacy, renewed his offer on Sunday to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week – provided, he said, that Putin did not invade Ukraine from here. the.
“Until the last minute, he always has the option to opt out,” Blinken told NBC’s Meet the Press.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued an advisory urging greater caution from Americans in Russia overall. “Have evacuation plans that are not dependent on US government assistance,” he warned.
Immediate concerns centered on eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russian rebels since 2014 in a conflict that has claimed some 14,000 lives.
In eastern Ukraine’s Lugansk and Donetsk regions, separatist leaders have ordered full military mobilization and sent more civilians to Russia, which has issued around 700,000 passports to residents of rebel-held territories . Claims that Russian citizens are in danger could be used to justify military action.
Officials in the separatist territories said Ukrainian forces launched several artillery attacks over the past day and two civilians were killed in an unsuccessful assault on a village near the Russian border. The Ukrainian army said two soldiers died on Saturday in fire from the separatist side.
“When the tension has risen to the maximum, as it is now, for example, on the contact line, then any spark, any unforeseen incident or any planned minor provocation can lead to irreparable consequences,” the carrier said. Putin’s word, Dmitry Peskov, in a statement. an interview broadcast Sunday on Russian state television.
On the front line, Ukrainian soldiers said they were under orders not to retaliate. Zahar Leshushun, peering into the distance with a periscope, had been following the news all day from a trench where he is posted near the town of Zolote.
“Right now, we’re not responding to their fire because…” the soldier said before the sound of a shell interrupted him. “Oh! They’re shooting at us now. They’re aiming for the command post.
Heintz reported from Moscow and Miller from Washington. Mstyslav Chernov in Zolote in Ukraine, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Aamer Madhani in Munich, Ellen Knickmeyer, Robert Burns and Darlene Superville in Washington, Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius in Lithuania and Yuras Karmanau in Kiev contributed to this story.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine