Russia extended what it called military exercises that were originally scheduled to end Sunday. They brought about 30,000 Russian troops to Belarus, Ukraine’s neighbor to north. They are among the 150,000 Russian troops currently outside Ukraine’s borders.
Concerns were raised about the Russian presence in Belarus and their potential use to attack Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Kyiv is home to approximately 3 million people. It is located less than three hours from Kiev.
Katerina Spanchak was one of the many worshippers who fled eastern Ukraine after it was overthrown by Russian-allied separatists.
“We all love life, and we are all united by our love of life,” Spanchak said, pausing to compose herself. “We should appreciate it every day. That’s why I think everything will be fine.”
“Our joint prayers will help to elude this tragedy, which is advancing,” said another worshipper, who identified himself only by his first name, Oleh.
A U.S. official said Sunday that Biden’s assertion that Putin has made the decision to roll Russian forces into Ukraine was based on intelligence that Russian front-line commanders have been given orders to begin final preparations for an attack. An anonymous source spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive intelligence.
The United States and many European countries have charged for weeks that Putin has built up the forces he needs to invade Ukraine — a westward-looking democracy that has sought to move out of Russia’s orbit — and is now trying to create pretexts to invade.
Western countries have threatened severe sanctions against Putin if he does.
After Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian President, passionately pleaded Saturday for more from the West, U.S. officials defended Sunday’s decision to delay their planned financial sanctions of Russia.
“If you pull the trigger on that deterrent, well then, it doesn’t exist anymore as a deterrent,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Fox on Washington’s sanctions threat.
Russia conducted nuclear drills on Saturday, as well as conventional exercises in Belarus. There are also ongoing naval drills off the coast of the Black Sea.
The announcement that Russia was reversing its pledge to withdraw its forces from Belarus came after two days of sustained shelling along a contact line between Ukraine’s soldiers and Russian-allied separatists in eastern Ukraine, an area that Ukraine and the West worry could be the flashpoint in igniting conflict.
Biden convened the National Security Council at the White House on Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine. Officials at the White House did not immediately release details about their discussion, which lasted approximately two hours.
“We’re talking about the potential for war in Europe,” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said earlier Sunday at a security conference in Munich, Germany, that saw urgent consultations among world leaders on the crisis. “It’s been over 70 years, and through those 70 years … there has been peace and security.”
Both U.S. and European officials maintained that they are still following what Antony Blinken, U.S. secretary of state, called “last-ditch diplomacy.”
Zelenskyy called for a cease-fire on Twitter Sunday. Russia denied any plans to invade. However, the Kremlin refused to respond to Zelenskyy’s Saturday offer of meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After a call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin blamed Ukraine — incorrectly, according to observers there — for the escalation of shelling along the contact line and NATO for “pumping modern weapons and ammunition” into Ukraine. The Kremlin statement mentioned a cease-fire only in passing and made no mention of Zelenskyy’s call for a meeting.
Macron, who is a leader in European efforts towards a peaceful solution with Russia, spoke to Zelenskyy separately, as well as to Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, and Biden. Macron’s office said both the Ukrainian and Russian leaders had agreed to work toward a diplomatic solution “in coming days and coming weeks.”
Blinken, the United States’ top diplomat, on Sunday renewed his offer to meet one-on-one with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week — on the condition, he said, that Putin has not invaded Ukraine by then.
“Up to the last minute, there is still an option for him to pull back,” Blinken told NBC’s Meet the Press.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued a warning urging Russia’s citizens to exercise greater caution. “Have evacuation plans that do not rely on U.S. government assistance,” it warned.
There are immediate concerns about eastern Ukraine. Since 2014, Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russian rebels in an ongoing conflict that has claimed 14,000 lives.
Separatist leaders in the eastern Ukraine region of Lugansk or Donetsk have ordered a full mobilization of military forces and sent more civilians into Russia. Russia has issued approximately 700,000 passports to the residents of rebel-held territory. The military might use the excuse that Russian citizens are at risk to justify its actions.
Officials in the separatist territory claimed that Ukrainian forces launched several artillery assaults over the last day and that two civilians died during an unsuccessful assault against a village near the Russian frontier. Ukraine’s military said two soldiers died in firing from the separatist side on Saturday.
“When tension is escalated to the maximum, as it is now, for example, on the line of contact, then any spark, any unplanned incident or any minor planned provocation can lead to irreparable consequences,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in an interview that aired Sunday on Russian state television.
Ukrainian soldiers claimed that they were not allowed to fire on the frontlines. Zahar Leshushun was looking out into the distance using a periscope and had been following the news throughout the day from the trench he occupies near Zolote.
“Right now, we don’t respond to their fire because …” the soldier said before the sound of an incoming shell interrupted him. “Oh! They are now firing at us. They are aiming at the command post.”
Heintz reported from Moscow while Miller was from Washington. This story was contributed by Mstyslav Chernov, Ukraine, Geir Molson in Berlin, Aamer madhani in Munich and Ellen Knickmeyer. Darlene Superville and Robert Burns also contributed. Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius (Lithuania) and Yuras Karmanau, Kyiv.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine