Joe Biden has claimed that 150,000 Russian troops remain in a “threatening position” around Ukraine, despite Russian claims of a withdrawal, and warned that an invasion “remains distinctly possible”, as Ukraine began to mark what its president called a “day of unity”.
In a televised address from the White House on Tuesday afternoon, Biden combined a repeated offer of security talks with a warning of severe repercussions if Russia carries out an attack that US intelligence has reportedly assessed could take place as early as Wednesday.
On Wednesday morning, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy spoke at a “day of unity” telethon, according to Interfax, saying that Ukrainians were “united by a single desire – to live, to live in peace, to live happily, with one family, with children, with parents.” He has previously urged people to fly flags and sing the national anthem at 10am.
In his speech, Biden said he would “rally the world” to oppose Russian military action but made clear that the response would be primarily economic, saying: “I will not send American servicemen to fight in Ukraine.”
But he made clear that any attack on Nato territory or harm to Americans would be treated differently.
“We’re not seeking direct confrontation with Russia, though I’ve been clear that if Russia targets Americans and Ukraine, we will respond forcefully,” Biden said. “If Russia attacks the United States or our allies through asymmetric means, like disruptive cyber-attacks against our companies or critical infrastructure, we’re prepared to respond.”
Earlier in the day, the websites run by the Ukrainian defence ministry, the armed forces and the country’s largest commercial bank, PrivatBank, and Oschadbank were closed down after a cyber-attack. The Washington Post cited intelligence sources as saying the attack was probably the work of Russian government hackers, but the White House said it could not comment on attribution.
Ukraine’s data security agency said later that operations at the two banks resumed on Tuesday evening and that its national cybersecurity system was “taking all necessary measures to localise and resist the cyberattack”.
Pavlo Kukhta, a Ukrainian economist and adviser to the energy minister, said it was possible the hackers were preparing to target the country’s “vulnerable” power grid. “The goal is quite simple: to sow panic, show what they are capable of, test the systems and see if they are vulnerable,” the New York Times quoted him as saying.
Late on Tuesday, the UK foreign secretary, Liz Truss, criticised Russia’s refusal to participate in talks at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that were called for by Ukraine, saying it demonstrated Moscow’s “contempt for the commitments it freely signed up to”.
“It is Russia that is the aggressor here,” she said in a statement. “The troops stationed on the border are clear threat to Ukraine. The UK and our allies urge the Kremlin to withdraw its troops and enter discussions based on the proposals put forward by Nato to improve transparency and reduce risk.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Vladimir Putin had claimed that a “partial” drawdown of Russian forces from the Ukrainian border.
Asked for the reason for the drawdown on Tuesday, Putin was not forthcoming. “It’s a partial withdrawal of troops from the areas of our exercises,” he said in response to a question during a press conference with the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz. “What is there to comment on?”
In his televised address, Biden made clear the US was unconvinced by the Kremlin’s claims of a withdrawal.
“We have not yet verified that Russian military units are returning to their home bases. Indeed our analysts indicate that they remain very much in a threatening position,” the president said. “The fact remains right now Russia has more than 150,000 troops encircling Ukraine and Belarus and along Ukraine’s border. An invasion remains distinctly possible.”
Russia has always denied planning to invade Ukraine, saying it can exercise troops on its own territory as it sees fit. It has been pressing for a set of security guarantees from the west, including a guarantee that Ukraine will never join Nato.
Biden repeated the US and Nato position that they will not compromise on the right of Ukraine and other countries to decide their own security policy, including alliances.
“The United States has put on the table concrete ideas to establish a security environment in Europe. We’re proposing new arms control measures, new transparency measures, new strategic stability measures,” the president said. “We are willing to make practical result-oriented steps that can advance our common security. We will not sacrifice basic principles, though. Nations have a right to sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Addressing the Russian people directly, the president said: “You are not our enemy, and I do not believe you want a bloody destructive war against Ukraine, a country and the people with whom you share such deep ties of family history and culture.”
“If Russia does invade in the days and weeks ahead, the human cost for Ukraine will be immense,” he said, adding it would be “a self-inflicted wound” for Russia.
He also prepared Americans for consequences, saying: “I will not pretend this will be painless, there could be impact on our energy prices.” He pledged that his administration would take steps to mitigate that impact.
In another sign of Russia turning the screw on Ukraine, the state duma voted on Tuesday to ask Putin to recognise the independence of the two Russian-controlled separatist regions in the east of the country.
Putin, hinting that he intended to use them as leverage, said he would not recognise the “republics” immediately, but called on Nato to negotiate with him on Russia’s security guarantees before it was “too late”.
“We hear that Ukraine is not ready to join Nato; we know that,” Putin said. “At the same time, they say it’s not going to join tomorrow. But by the time they get ready for it, it may be too late for us. So we have to decide this question now, right now, in the very near future, we have to have a negotiation process for this.”
The drawdown was first announced on Tuesday morning by the defence ministry spokesperson, Igor Konashenkov, who described ongoing exercises that involved forces from “practically all military districts, fleets and the airborne forces”.
The defence ministry released video apparently shot in Crimea of Russian tanks and other heavy weaponry from two brigades being loaded on to railway cars. Otherwise, the Russian military gave little information about which forces would be withdrawn and where they would be sent.
Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said: “We believe there is some ground for cautious optimism based on the signals and signs coming from Moscow, that they are ready to engage in a diplomatic effort and we are ready to continue to engage in a diplomatic effort.”
Ukrainian officials said they would not take Moscow at its word about a drawdown. “Many statements are constantly being made from [Russia], so we have a rule: we’ll believe it when we see it,” said Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister. “If we see the withdrawal then we will believe in de-escalation.”
The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, accused the west of manufacturing “manic information madness”.
“We’ve always said the troops will return to their bases after the exercises are over. This is the case this time as well,” he said.
Additional reporting by Daniel Boffey in Brussels and Patrick Wintour in London