MOSCOW — Even with Russian warships massing off Ukraine’s Black Sea coast and the United States warning that Russian ground forces are poised to strike Ukraine from multiple directions, Russia’s top diplomat said on Monday that the possibility of a diplomatic resolution to the crisis was “far from exhausted.”
Another hint of averting war came from Ukraine’s president, who said Monday that his country might have to abandon the possibility of joining NATO — a central Russian demand in a confrontation that threatens the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II.
Speaking in what appeared to be a carefully scripted televised meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov said that he supported continuing negotiations with the West on the “security guarantees” Russia has been demanding of the United States and NATO.
“I believe that our possibilities are far from exhausted,” Mr. Lavrov said, referring to Russia’s negotiations with the West. “I would propose continuing and intensifying them.”
Mr. Putin responded simply: “Good.”
The televised meeting was a signal that Russia might continue using the threat of an invasion of Ukraine to try to squeeze diplomatic concessions from the West, rather than resorting to immediate military action.
At the same time, the comments by President Volodymyr Zelensky, saying that perhaps the notion of NATO membership “is for us like a dream” suggested — however vaguely — that his country might make the kind of concessions it has staunchly resisted so far.
NATO stated in 2008 that it intended for Ukraine to join the alliance eventually, though that remains a remain prospect. Moscow has demanded that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO and has also called for a rollback of NATO forces from across Eastern Europe.
The U.S. and NATO formally rejected those demands, but they proposed several areas — including nuclear arms control and limits on military exercises — where they were willing to negotiate.
But the Kremlin has yet to respond, leaving a vast chasm that diplomacy has so far failed to bridge.
Mr. Putin asked Mr. Lavrov whether he had prepared a draft response to the proposals that the United States and NATO submitted last month. Mr. Lavrov said he had indeed prepared a 10-page response, offering no details. A spokesman for Mr. Putin, Dmitri S. Peskov, said after the televised meeting that the Kremlin would announce when Russia submitted its response, and that Mr. Putin would decide whether to make it public.
Mr. Putin told his diplomats in November that it was good that “tensions” were high with the West and that it was “important for them to remain in this state for as long as possible.”
He also held a meeting with his defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, who described Russia’s wide-ranging military exercises, and said that some were now ending or would end soon.
Western officials have expressed fears that the window for a diplomatic solution may be closing after a phone call between President Biden and Mr. Putin over the weekend resulted in “no fundamental change in the dynamic that has unfolded now for several weeks,” according to the White House.
As the Biden administration warns that a Russian invasion could be imminent, publicly available satellite imagery has documented a huge Russian military buildup around Ukraine, including naval vessels armed with missiles, and infantry, tank and airborne regiments capable of striking from multiple directions.
The United States has “good sources of intelligence” that indicate “that things are sort of building now to some kind of crescendo opportunity for Mr. Putin,” John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said on Sunday.
While Russia has repeatedly said it has no plans to launch an attack, it has continued to add to the arsenal threatening its neighbor. Last week, when asked about the possibility of invasion, Mr. Putin refused to rule out the possibility.
Even as the Ukrainian government has sought to maintain calm, the country’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said that Moscow needed to explain its actions and “fulfill its commitment to military transparency in order to de-escalate tensions and enhance security for all.”
KYIV, Ukraine — For Ukraine, joining the NATO security alliance is an aspiration enshrined in its constitution. And although Western leaders say membership is at best a distant prospect at best, Russia regards even the possibility as an existential threat.
That dispute is at the core of Russia’s menacing military buildup surrounding Ukraine. The United States and NATO have said that the decision to seek membership should be up to individual countries, and in public Ukrainian officials have insisted that there is no change in their position.
But on Monday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine did not rule out the possibility of dropping his country’s bid to join NATO, saying: “Maybe the question of open doors is for us like a dream.”
While emphasizing that NATO membership “is for our security and it is in the constitution,” Mr. Zelensky, speaking at a news conference alongside Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, acknowledged the difficult place the country finds itself in, nearly completely encircled by Russian or Russian-backed forces, and with partners like the United States insisting it will not send troops into Ukraine to repel a Russian invasion.
“How much should Ukraine go on that path?” Mr. Zelensky said of NATO membership. “Who will support us?”
Mr. Zelensky was responding to a question about comments made by Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to Britain, who told BBC radio on Sunday that his government was “flexible in trying to find the best way out” and was considering dropping the country’s NATO ambitions.
Since December, the Ukrainian government has been quietly pursuing negotiations that could lead to acceptance of some form of neutrality, or another solution more narrowly focused on Russian demands in a cease-fire agreement in the long-running conflict in eastern Ukraine.
In public, officials including the current foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, have rejected concessions as counterproductive and likely only to encourage further Russian aggression.
Mr. Prystaiko, a former foreign minister who served under President Zelensky, was asked in the BBC interview: “If it averts war, will your country contemplate not joining NATO, dropping that as a goal?”
He replied: “We might, especially being threatened like that, blackmailed like that, and pushed to it.”
While emphasizing that even commenting on the possibility could be seen as violating Ukrainian laws, he went on: “What I’m saying here, is we are flexible in trying to find the best way out. If we have to go through some serious concessions, that’s something we might do, that is for sure.”
His comments caused a stir, and the Ukrainian government quickly sought to clarify the matter. The spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, Oleh Nikolenko, tweeted that Mr. Prystaiko’s comments had been reported out of context. “Ukraine’s position remains unchanged,” he said. “The goal of NATO membership is enshrined in the constitution.”
Mr. Prystaiko later emphaisized in an interview with Yevropaiska Pravda, a Ukrainian news outlet, that “there are no changes now” to the country’s stance. But because Ukraine is not a member of the alliance, he said, in the current standoff with Russia “we cannot count on NATO because we are not a member of the family.”
The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, welcomed the ambassador’s comments while acknowledging the response from the Ukrainian foreign ministry.
“Clearly, Ukraine’s confirmed rejection of the idea of joining NATO would be a step that would significantly facilitate the formulation of a better response to Russia’s concerns,” Mr. Peskov said on Monday. But given the confusion around the comments, he added: “We cannot interpret it as a fact that Kyiv’s conceptual worldview has changed.”
Russian and Belarusian fighter jets continued large-scale joint military exercises including in airspace near Ukraine, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Monday, fueling concerns about a possible attack by Russia against its smaller neighbor.
The drills by Russia and its ally Belarus, which NATO has said involved tens of thousands of troops and are the largest in decades, carried on over the weekend in Belarus with artillery formations from both countries engaging in live-fire drills. Russia has described the exercises as routine.
On Monday, in the Gomel region of Belarus, north of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, Russian paratroopers worked at strengthening the country’s border with Ukraine and participated in training on repelling “groups of saboteurs,” the Belarusian Defense Ministry said in a statement describing the exercise.
The joint exercises, which have raised alarm in Western capitals that they could offer cover for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to launch an incursion into Ukraine from the north, were scheduled to end on Feb. 20. The Kremlin said last week that Russian troops — some of whom have been deployed from bases in Siberia and beyond, thousands of miles to the east — would leave Belarus after the drills end.
But on Monday, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus was cagey when asked whether the Russian troops would leave after the drills.
“This is our business with Putin,” Mr. Lukashenko said. “We will meet soon, and will make a decision about when Russian forces will be withdrawn and what the schedule and time frame will be.”
Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, confirmed that a meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Lukashenko would take place this week. Asked to clarify when Russian troops would leave Belarus, Mr. Peskov said: “Let’s not jump the gun.”
Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, said on Monday in a televised meeting with Mr. Putin that “some of the drills are already ending and some will end soon.”
In addition to military maneuvers in Belarus, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Monday that the Russian Armed Forces and Navy conducted exercises in Crimea, the Black Sea and in Transnistria, the breakaway region of Moldova that borders Ukraine — in effect encircling Ukraine on three sides by hostile forces.
Ukraine has conducted its own military drills, and on Monday the Ukrainian and Belarusian defense ministers spoke by phone. In an effort to calm tensions surrounding the maneuvers and “strengthen mutual trust,” the two sides agreed that a defense official from each country would visit exercises taking place in the other, according to a statement by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.
U.S. officials are warning that Russia could invade Ukraine in a matter of days. Russia says its buildup of troops and weapons is part of planned military exercises. But U.S. officials and independent military experts say at least half of Russia’s battalion tactical groups, which are designed for ground combat, have been deployed near Ukraine.
Energy markets were on edge Monday, waiting for Russia to invade Ukraine or to back off its threatening posture. The stakes are high because Russia is Europe’s primary source of natural gas and supplier of roughly one of every 10 barrels of oil the world consumes.
Oil prices have risen to well over $90 a barrel in recent days as Russian troops massed along Ukraine’s borders, and many experts say an outright invasion would send the price above $100 a barrel. The average price for regular gasoline in the United States has risen to nearly $3.50, a rise of almost 20 cents over the last month and nearly $1 more than a year ago, according to AAA. Diesel prices are rising a penny a gallon every day.
With oil supplies already tight as the world economy recovers from the pandemic, most energy prices are at their highest since 2014. That has helped drive up inflation, weighing on consumer spending.
Oil markets started the day rising nearly 2 percent, but then slumped later in the session. European natural gas prices rose about 6 percent.
The biggest immediate threat from a Russian invasion would be Russian natural gas exports through Ukrainian pipelines that flow to Europe. If the gas stopped flowing, many Europeans could lack heat as utilities cut back on their capacity to produce power and factories might have to shorten their hours of operation. Russia could also restrict oil exports — 700,000 barrels a day land in the United States. Those moves would, of course, damage the Russian economy as well, and make the economic sanctions promised by Washington and its allies all the more punitive. That threat may turn out to be the primary reason that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia eventually looks for a compromise.
There are reasons to hope an energy crisis could be averted. The United States has been producing an increasing amount of oil in recent weeks, and a nuclear deal with Iran could be in the works that would release as much as a million barrels a day on the world market. The current winter is relatively mild, and the wind is blowing far stronger than last winter, giving wind power a critical push. And the Biden administration has had some success in finding additional liquefied natural gas supplies for Europe by persuading Japan and other Asian consumers to forgo some supplies so the energy can be diverted to Europe.
Global oil production has not kept up over the last year with the growth of demand despite the lingering pandemic. While output of several members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries has declined, there have also been interruptions of production among other producers outside the cartel, including Ecuador and Kazakhstan, because of natural disasters and political turmoil. At the same time, many commuters have given up on mass transit because of fears of infection and drive their autos instead.
A diplomatic settlement, of course, would relieve the pressures and energy prices would go down. But with no easy diplomatic solution in view, experts say it is hard to be optimistic.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has lurched from crisis to crisis, providing entrepreneurs with wild opportunities and high risks. A New York Times photo essay focuses on business owners in Kyiv, the capital, who are hoping that everything they have built since the last conflict will not disappear in another round of fighting. Read the full story.
— Sasha Maslov
The day before he is scheduled to meet President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, visited Kyiv on Monday to promise full support to Ukraine in the case of a Russian invasion.
“In the event of military escalation, we are ready for very far-reaching and effective sanctions in coordination with our allies,” Mr. Scholz said during a joint news conference with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.
Mr. Scholz, who was criticized for weeks for being slow to respond to the Russian military buildup surrounding Ukraine, has recently sought to demonstrate solidarity with the United States and NATO allies in condemning the Russian threat.
After a meeting with Mr. Zelensky that went on longer than scheduled, Mr. Scholz said at the news conference that it was up to Russia to respond to proposals by the United States and NATO to address Moscow’s concerns surrounding security in Eastern Europe. Russian officials have indicated that those responses were being finalized.
“NATO and the U.S. have made specific proposals to Russia, which we support,” Mr. Scholz said.
Although Mr. Scholz said his country would continue to support Ukraine with financial aid, and that he would be encouraging German business to invest in the country, he once again ruled out sending any weaponry.
“No country in the world has provided such strong financial support to Ukraine over the past eight years,” he said.
Mr. Scholz was scheduled to return to Berlin on Monday night before flying to Moscow on Tuesday morning.
He would become the latest Western leader to attempt shuttle diplomacy between Moscow and Kyiv, with previous efforts, including by President Emmanuel Macron of France last week, bearing little fruit. There is scant expectation that Mr. Scholz would fare any better, although the continued drumbeat of high-level diplomatic meetings left hopes of pulling back from the brink of a war that nearly all observers agree would be catastrophic.
JERUSALEM — Israel’s Ministry of Immigration said Monday that it is preparing contingency plans for a possible wave of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, even though officials said there was no sign yet of a surge in applications from people looking to get out of the country.
Israel is one of more than a dozen nations that have urged their citizens to leave the country, fearing that a full-scale war with Russia could break out any day.
The minister for immigration, Pnina Tamano-Shata, said Israel was prepared for any scenario. But other officials said that an emergency airlift to evacuate Jews was not likely, particularly if hostilities broke out and airports were closed.
Up to 200,000 Ukrainians are believed to be eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship either because they are Jews or they have family connections. The local community of involved Ukrainian Jews is thought to be less than 50,000.
Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ immediate priority is to persuade the thousands of Israeli citizens who are still in Ukraine to leave the country while the situation remains stable, according to officials in Jerusalem.
Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a travel warning on Friday advising Israeli citizens in Ukraine to reconsider staying there and said it was evacuating the families of Israeli diplomats from the embassy in Kyiv.
After few Israelis immediately heeded the advice, the ministry issued a stronger warning on Saturday calling on them to leave as soon as possible and saying the ministry was reinforcing the embassy with additional staff to manage emergency consular matters.
About 10,000 to 15,000 Israelis are estimated to be in Ukraine, including many Arab citizens who are studying medicine in the country. About 6,000 Israelis in Ukraine registered online with the ministry to receive official updates, and about 1,000 of them left Ukraine on Sunday. About 30 flights that are scheduled to leave Ukraine for Israel this week have not been fully booked as of Monday.
The Jewish Agency for Israel, a quasi-governmental body also involved with immigration, has evacuated about 24 representatives serving in educational programs, along with their families. Senior representatives and about 100 local employees of the organization have remained in Ukraine to support the Jewish community.
KYIV, Ukraine — Several countries including the United States are pulling their citizens from a cease-fire monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine, diminishing the international observer mission even as the threat of military action grows.
American members of the monitoring mission, operated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or O.S.C.E., began pulling out over the weekend, after the State Department ordered all nonemergency U.S. diplomats and embassy employees to leave Ukraine. Britain is expected to withdraw its nationals from territories controlled by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine by Tuesday.
The O.S.C.E. mission confirmed in a statement that some countries had decided to withdraw their monitors from Ukraine “within the next days,” but did not specify which countries.
The O.S.C.E. group, called the Special Monitoring Mission, is an unarmed civilian mission that works on both sides of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been locked in a deadly stalemate with Russian-backed rebels since 2014. The mission’s main work is watching and producing reports on the conflict, making them the only truly independent source of information for the international community on the ground in eastern Ukraine.
Most of the several hundred observers are diplomats or former military officers seconded to the O.S.C.E. by member states, which include the United States and Russia. Other countries, including Austria, have said they plan to leave their observers in place for now.
American members of the mission were seen leaving a hotel on Sunday in the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk, Reuters reported. A spokesman for the U.S. mission in Ukraine, Daniel Langenkamp, told Ukrainian media that the American observers were “very vulnerable.”
“While we strongly support the important work” of the monitoring mission, Mr. Langenkamp said, “the safety of U.S. citizens is our priority.”
Russia has not announced its plans for Russian nationals in the mission. The spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said the American decision to withdraw its monitors suggested an effort to hinder the mission’s reporting on Ukrainian military operations.
— Maria Varenikova
As warnings mount that a Russian invasion could happen at any moment, airlines have suspended flights to Ukraine, diplomats have begun to depart and countries around the world have urged their citizens to leave.
But many foreigners in Ukraine have not rushed to get out.
“I am not going anywhere,” said Thomas Jones, a British national who moved to Ukraine seven years ago to help a nongovernmental organization distribute food and medical supplies after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. He is now married to a Ukrainian woman and works as an English teacher, writer and translator.
Lamenting a “media frenzy of panic” by Western broadcasters over the current crisis, he said that Ukrainians have lived with the constant threat of Russia and Russian-backed separatists since 2014 and were now used to it, prepared and relatively calm.
“It’s not like people are running to the shops and buying a container load of toilet paper and canned food,” he said.
His view echoed that of many foreigners in Ukraine who in recent weeks have been pulled between warnings from Western governments and urging from the Ukrainian government not to panic.
Following weeks of frantic diplomatic talks that seemed to bear little success, more than a dozen countries — including the United States, Australia, Britain, Italy, Israel and Kuwait — have asked their citizens to leave the country because of safety concerns. The United States on Saturday ordered its embassy in Kyiv to draw down to a “bare minimum” level of staffing.
France has taken a different tack, however, saying on Sunday that it was not advising the estimated 1,000 French nationals living in Ukraine to leave. The French ambassador to Kyiv said in a statement that the two nations should not postpone important economic projects.
Ukrainska Pravda, a Ukrainian news outlet, reported on Sunday that an unusually high number of private and chartered jets were departing Kyiv, a possible sign that the country’s elite was packing up.
But for many foreigners, their reluctance to leave Ukraine was rooted in financial concerns. Roberto Marcuccio, who lives in Mykolaiv, in southern Ukraine, said he left everything in his native Italy behind five years ago to make a new life there. He is married to a Ukrainian woman, works for his wife’s billboard business and has a 5-year-old son.
“What am I going to do in Italy? I have no family who can help me, what am I going to eat, how I am going to live?” said Mr. Marcuccio, 48. “I am only going to leave when they start shooting,” he added.
The State Department said that about 6,600 Americans were residing in Ukraine as of October, but that the total number of U.S. nationals in the country could be as high as 16,000, including tourists and visitors.
John Jones, a 63-year-old Californian who owns a solar panel manufacturer in Ukraine, was determined to stay in Kyiv, unwilling to turn his back on colleagues and friends.
“You can’t leave a business unattended,” he said, “and I wouldn’t leave if all my people didn’t also leave.”
KYIV, Ukraine — Russian attack helicopters were spotted buzzing within miles of his country’s borders on Sunday. The last strands of diplomacy were unraveling. Allies evacuated their embassies, airlines canceled flights, and a large number of private jets departed from the capital.
For Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president and a former comedic actor who was elected three years ago on a message of optimism about his country’s relations with Russia — something that now seems a distant memory — room for maneuver narrowed over the weekend to a tiny selection of uncertain options.
During a phone call on Sunday with President Biden, Mr. Zelensky issued an invitation for a visit, so the American president could “contribute to de-escalation” with his presence in Kyiv. The United States has already ordered most American diplomats to leave, making a presidential visit unlikely.
But the 44-year-old Ukrainian president is clinging to the strategy he has pursued for months, using every appearance to caution against panic and overreaction, to the point of seeming nearly delusional about the grave risks his country faces.
Mr. Zelensky has remained engaged in diplomacy even as no clear path to a settlement is in focus, while instructing his military to signal, as it said in a statement over the weekend, that Ukraine is “absolutely ready to fight.”
Adhering to a disciplined public relations strategy has been a hallmark of Mr. Zelensky’s tenure, seen as springing from the background he and important aides share in the entertainment industry.