Flights to Ukraine Halted as Crisis Brews
MOSCOW — Some airlines have canceled or diverted flights to Ukraine amid warnings from the West that an invasion by Russia is imminent despite intensive weekend talks between Moscow and Washington.
In an hourlong call Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Joe Biden said an invasion of Ukraine would cause “widespread human suffering” and that the West was committed to diplomacy to end the crisis but “equally prepared for other scenarios,” the White House said. The White House did not suggest that this call reduced the danger of war in Europe.
Biden and Zelenskyy would be speaking later in Sunday’s White House meeting, according to officials.
On Friday, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, warned that U.S. intelligence shows a Russian invasion could begin within days. Volodymyr Zeleskyy, President of Ukraine, has dismissed invasion worries and called for calm.
Russia has not stated that it plans to invade Ukraine, but the country has gathered well over 100,000 soldiers near its borders and sent troops to Belarus to practice. U.S. officials say Russia’s buildup of firepower has reached the point where it could invade on short notice.
A U.S. official who was familiar with the information said that intelligence from the U.S. showed Russia’s interest in Wednesday as a possible target date. Official who wasn’t authorized to talk publicly, spoke only under condition of anonymity and would not reveal how conclusive the intelligence was.
“I believe that today in the information space, there is a lot of information,” Zelenskyy said Saturday. “We understand all the risks, we understand that there are risks. If you, or anyone else, has additional information regarding a 100% Russian invasion starting on the 16th, please forward that information to us.”
Reflecting the West’s concerns, Dutch airline KLM has canceled flights to Ukraine until further notice, the company said Saturday.
After the shooting down in 2014 of a Malaysian plane flying between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, it was affixed to a region of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed rebels. This raised Dutch concern about potential danger in Ukrainian airspace. All 298 people aboard died, including 198 Dutch citizens.
The Ukrainian charter airline SkyUp said Sunday its flight from Madeira, Portugal, to Kyiv was diverted to the Moldovan capital of Chisinau after the plane’s Irish lessor said it was banning flights in Ukrainian airspace.
Serhii Nakyforov (the Ukrainian president’s spokesperson) told The Associated Press, “Ukraine hasn’t closed its airspace.” A statement from the Infrastructure Ministry said: “Some carriers are experiencing difficulties associated with fluctuations in the insurance markets.”
Following a phone call between Putin, Macron and Macron earlier in day, this conversation was crucial for the West and Russia’s biggest security crisis since the Cold War. Officials in the United States believe that they only have a few days left to stop an invasion of Ukraine and massive bloodshed.
Although the U.S. has no plans to send military personnel to Ukraine, NATO members have. An invasion with resulting harsh sanctions could cause havoc in Europe and affect energy supplies and balances.
“President Biden was clear with President Putin that while the United States remains prepared to engage in diplomacy, in full coordination with our Allies and partners, we are equally prepared for other scenarios,” the White House statement said.
Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s top foreign policy aide, said that while tensions have been escalating for months, in recent days “the situation has simply been brought to the point of absurdity.”
He said Biden mentioned the possible sanctions that could be imposed on Russia, but “this issue was not the focus during a fairly long conversation with the Russian leader.”
The United States has announced that it will evacuate all its personnel from Kyiv’s embassy. It also asked for the immediate evacuation of American citizens. Britain and other European nations joined forces in warning its citizens not to return to Ukraine.
Canada’s embassy has been closed in Kyiv, and its diplomatic staff have moved to Lviv. Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly announced Saturday. Lviv is home to a Ukrainian military base that has served as the main hub for Canada’s 200-soldier training mission.
Further U.S.-Russia tensions arose on Saturday when the Defense Ministry summoned the U.S. Embassy’s military attache after it said the navy detected an American submarine in Russian waters near the Kuril Islands in the Pacific. The submarine declined orders to leave, but departed after the navy used unspecified “appropriate means,” the ministry said.
To add to the crisis atmosphere, the Pentagon sent 3,000 additional U.S. soldiers to Poland in order to assure allies.
In addition to the more than 100,000 ground troops that U.S. officials say Russia has assembled along Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders, the Russians have deployed missile, air, naval and special operations forces, as well as supplies to sustain a war. Russia has moved six amphibious assault vessels into the Black Sea this week to increase its ability to land sea-going marines.
Biden has bolstered the U.S. military presence in Europe as reassurance to allies on NATO’s eastern flank. On top of the 1,700 troops already there, the 3,000 extra soldiers sent to Poland are now 1.700. 1000 soldiers are also being moved by the U.S. Army from Germany to Romania. Romania shares a border in Ukraine with Poland.
Russia wants the West to keep out former Soviet states from NATO. It also wants NATO to refrain from deploying weapons near its border and to roll back alliance forces from Eastern Europe — demands flatly rejected by the West.
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter conflict since 2014, when Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly leader was driven from office by a popular uprising. Moscow took the Crimean Peninsula as its own and supported a separatist group in Ukraine. More than 14,000 have been killed in fighting.
France and Germany brokered the 2015 peace accord, which helped stop large-scale wars. But regular skirmishes continued and negotiations for a political solution have failed.
“My family has always been prepared, we have all the stuff gathered for like a couple of years now. Honestly, I’m not afraid because the war wouldn’t start like in a week,” 21-year-old Yuliia Zaets said at a pro-givernment rally on Saturday.
This story was contributed by Yuras Karmanau, Kyiv (Ukraine).