US President Joe Biden has urged Russia to step back from the brink of war and says reports that Russia has withdrawn some forces from the Ukraine border have not been verified.
“To the citizens of Russia: You are not our enemy, and I don’t believe you want a bloody, destructive war against Ukraine,” Mr Biden said in nationally televised remarks from the White House on Tuesday (US time).
Mr Biden said the US was “not seeking direct confrontation with Russia” but that if Russia was to attack Americans in Ukraine, “we will respond forcefully”.
It came as Ukraine said its defence ministry and two banks had been hacked, appearing to blame Russia, and the West sought evidence from Moscow of a partial troop pullback.
Mr Biden said the US and its NATO allies were prepared for whatever happened and that Russia would pay a steep economic price if Moscow launched an invasion.
He said a Russian attack on Ukraine remained a possibility.
“We are ready to respond decisively to a Russian attack on Ukraine, which remains very much a possibility,” Mr Biden said.
The Kremlin, the United States and Europe are engaged in one of the deepest crises in East-West relations for decades over Ukraine, post-Cold War influence on the continent and energy supplies as Moscow wants to stop Kyiv joining NATO.
Western nations have suggested arms control and confidence-building steps to defuse the stand-off and want Russia to reverse the build-up of some 130,000 soldiers on its neighbour’s border.
On Tuesday, Russia said some were returning to base after exercises. That prompted the US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield to call for evidence, saying such a move “would be welcome news, if it is legitimate”.
Ukraine did not say who it believed was responsible for the cyberattack, but a statement suggested it was pointing the finger at Russia.
“It is not ruled out that the aggressor used tactics of little dirty tricks because its aggressive plans are not working out on a large scale,” said the Ukrainian Centre for Strategic Communications and Information Security, which is part of the culture ministry.
Privatbank users had problems with payments and a banking app, it said. Oshadbank said the cyberattack had slowed some of its systems and a message on the defence ministry website’s home page said it was under maintenance.
One European diplomat said the hacking was concerning because a full military attack on Ukraine would likely be preceded by a cyberattack.
Distributed denial-of-service attacks, when hackers flood a network with unusually high volumes of data traffic to paralyse it, such as those seen in Ukraine on Tuesday, are difficult to attribute. But the European diplomat said there was no doubt Russia was behind them.
World leaders continued their diplomatic efforts.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov during a call on Tuesday that there needed to be “verifiable, credible, meaningful de-escalation” by Moscow.
NATO’s chief welcomed signals from Russia in the past two days that it may be looking for a diplomatic solution but urged Moscow to demonstrate its will to act.
“There are signs from Moscow that diplomacy should continue,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
He said Russia often left military equipment behind after exercises, creating the potential for forces to regroup.
At a joint news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Russian President Vladimir Putin referred only briefly to the troop moves and did not go into details.
Russia has always denied planning to invade Ukraine, saying it can exercise troops on its own territory as it sees fit. It has pressed for security guarantees from the West.
Mr Putin said Russia would not be satisfied with talk that Ukraine was not ready to join the Western military alliance soon and was demanding the issue be resolved now.
“As for war in Europe … about whether we want it or not? Of course not. That is why we put forward proposals for a negotiation process, the result of which should be an agreement on ensuring equal security for everyone, including our country,” he said.
In a separate development, Russia’s lower house of parliament voted to ask Putin to recognise two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent.
Recognition of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics could kill the Minsk peace process in east Ukraine, where a conflict between government forces and Moscow-backed separatists has caused 15,000 deaths.
Asked about the move, Mr Putin said the regions’ problems should be solved on the basis of the Minsk agreements. They were signed in 2014 and 2015 but have never been implemented.
Mr Scholz said all sides should stick to those accords.