The US damped hopes that Moscow wants to find a diplomatic route out of the Ukraine crisis as officials warned that Russia’s military had in the past two days continued to ramp up plans for an invasion of its neighbour.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, raised expectations on Monday that the stand-off might be resolved peacefully when he said Moscow was prepared to keep talking to the west about its security concerns and that there could be still be a “way forward” in negotiations with the west.
But officials in Washington said Lavrov’s comments, which were made in a televised meeting with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, were at odds with military preparations for an assault that continued to advance.
“We have taken note of his comments. What we have not taken note of is any indication of de-escalation. We have not seen any tangible, any real sign of de-escalation,” Ned Price, the spokesperson for the US state department, said on Monday.
“It remains unclear to us whether Russia is interested in pursuing a diplomatic path as opposed to the use of force,” Price added.
The cautious tone on a possible diplomatic breakthrough came as Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor, held talks with Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, in Kyiv, before a visit to Moscow and a meeting with Putin on Tuesday.
Zelensky shook markets temporarily after declaring that he had been warned that February 16 would be the day of Russia’s invasion, as he pronounced Wednesday a day of national unity in the face of the threat to the country.
But Ukrainian officials later clarified that the comment was intended as a sarcastic quip. Zelensky’s spokesperson, Serhiy Nykyforov, said the president was commenting on unsubstantiated reports in the media and on social media suggesting the invasion could start on that date, not responding to direct warnings from world leaders.
“Of course, this is irony, sarcasm,” added Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser in Zelensky’s office.
The S&P fell to session lows as did the tech-heavy Nasdaq as investors ditched riskier assets for safe havens such as US government debt following Zelensky’s remarks, but those moves had largely reversed by the closing bell in New York.
Meanwhile, the US continued to prepare for a possible invasion, saying it would be temporarily shifting its embassy in Ukraine from Kyiv to Lviv, in the west of the country, “due to the dramatic acceleration in the build-up of Russian forces”.
John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, declined to comment on a CBS report that Russian units had moved to “attack positions” near the Ukrainian border but said Putin had continued to bolster “his readiness” over the past 24 to 48 hours and “could move with little to no warning”.
“He is doing all the things you would expect him to do to make sure he’s ready for that option,” Kirby said. Still, Kirby noted that Lavrov’s comments “seem to indicate that [Putin] still thinks there’s oxygen here for diplomacy” and the US would “welcome a pursuit of that path by the Russians”.
As US officials set out Washington’s reaction to Lavrov’s comments, Joe Biden, the US president, held a call with Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, to discuss diplomatic efforts and an allied response to a possible invasion.
Earlier in the day, Johnson had urged Putin to turn away from the “edge of the precipice” as he warned that the “evidence is pretty clear” that Moscow was planning an invasion of Ukraine. “There is still time for President Putin to step back,” he added.
US and Nato members have so far failed to reach a breakthrough with Russia after repeated exchanges over the future of Europe’s security architecture. Moscow has been urging Nato to drop it’s “open door” policy towards membership, particularly with regards to Ukraine, but the US and Nato have resisted that demand.
While the US has described the threat of a Russian attack as “immediate”, Washington has not yet concluded that Putin has made a final decision to launch military action.
“The path for diplomacy remains available if Russia chooses to engage constructively. However, we are clear-eyed about the prospect of that, given the steps Russia is taking on the ground in plain sight,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, deputy White House press secretary.