German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Ukraine amid growing fears of a Russian invasion

KYIV, Ukraine — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Ukraine on Monday as part of a flurry of Western diplomacy aimed at averting a feared Russian invasion that some warn could be days away.

Scholz plans to travel to Moscow, where he will try to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to back down.

US officials have warned that Russia could attack this week. Moscow denies having such plans, but it has amassed more than 130,000 troops near Ukraine and, according to the US, has amassed enough firepower to launch an attack at short notice.

With growing fears that war might be imminent, some airlines canceled flights to the Ukrainian capital, and on Sunday troops there unloaded fresh arms shipments from NATO members. The United States, Great Britain and other European countries ordered their citizens to leave the country, and Washington also removed most of its employees from the embassy in Kiev.

Ukraine’s air traffic safety agency UkSATSE issued a statement declaring the airspace over the Black Sea a “potential danger zone” due to Russian naval exercises and recommending aircraft avoid flying over the sea on Feb. 14-19.

The US and its NATO allies have repeatedly warned that Russia will pay a high price for any invasion, but they have sometimes struggled to present a united front. The Scholz government, in particular, has been criticized for refusing to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine or specify what sanctions it will support against Russia, raising questions about Berlin’s determination to stand up to Moscow.

As such, the Chancellor’s visits this week will be closely monitored for signs of deviation from the message being delivered by Washington and other NATO allies.

So far, these warnings seem to be of little effect: Russia has only increased its troops and weapons in the region and launched large-scale exercises in its allied Belarus, which also borders Ukraine. The West fears that the exercises, which entered a decisive phase last week and will last until Sunday, could be used by Moscow as cover for an invasion from the north.

Moscow wants assurances from the West that NATO will not allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to become members, and that the alliance will stop deploying weapons in Ukraine and withdraw its forces from Eastern Europe. The US and NATO categorically rejected these demands.

Some observers expect Moscow to eventually reach a compromise that avoids hostilities and allows all parties to save face. While NATO refuses to close the door on Ukraine, the alliance also has no intention of accepting Ukraine or any other former Soviet country anytime soon. Some pundits have floated ideas such as a moratorium on NATO expansion or a neutral status for Ukraine to defuse tensions.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, seemed to offer just such a middle path, telling the BBC on Sunday that the country could abandon its goal of joining NATO – a goal written into its constitution – if it averted a war with Russia. .

“We could, especially when we were threatened, blackmailed and pushed to do so,” Prystaiko said in an interview with BBC Radio 5.

However, Prystaiko appeared to backtrack on Monday, saying “we are prepared to make many concessions to avoid war…but this has nothing to do with NATO, which is enshrined in the constitution.”

In an hour-long conversation with Putin on Saturday, US President Joe Biden said that an invasion of Ukraine would cause “universal human suffering” and that the West was committed to diplomacy to end the crisis but “equally prepared for other scenarios,” the White House said.

Biden also spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for about an hour on Sunday, agreeing to continue using both deterrence and diplomacy to try to prevent a Russian advance.

As before, Zelenskiy sought to play down the idea of ​​the inevitability of conflict, noting that Kiev and other cities in Ukraine “are safe and under reliable protection.”

His office’s transcript of the call also cited his suggestion that Biden’s quick visit would help defuse the situation, suggesting Zelenskiy’s hope that the US leader might actually come. This possibility was not mentioned in the White House briefing on the phone.

“I am convinced that your arrival in Kiev in the coming days, which are critical to stabilizing the situation, will send a powerful signal and will contribute to de-escalation,” Zelensky’s office quoted his office as saying to Biden.

The Biden administration is increasingly outspoken about fears that Russia could create a false pretext for an invasion in the coming days.

Russia and Ukraine have been in bitter conflict since 2014, when Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly leader was ousted in a popular uprising. In response, Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula and then supported a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, where more than 14,000 people died in the fighting.

A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany helped stop large-scale fighting, but regular skirmishes continue and efforts to reach a political settlement have stalled.

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