The US has warned a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be “horrific” for both sides, while calling for a diplomatic solution as tensions over Moscow’s military buildup on the border of the country continued to simmer.
Speaking at the Pentagon on Friday, top US officials urged a focus on diplomacy while saying that Russia now had enough troops and equipment in place to threaten the whole of Ukraine.
Any such conflict, warned the top US general, Mark Milley, would be “horrific” for both sides.
“If that was unleashed on Ukraine, it would be significant, very significant, and it would result in a significant amount of casualties,” Milley said.
“It would be horrific, it will be terrible,” the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff added.
Speaking alongside Milley, US defense secretary Lloyd Austin said the buildup of Russian forces along Ukraine’s border has reached the point where Putin now has a complete range of military options, including actions short of a full-scale invasion.
But Austin said war in Ukraine could still be avoided.
“Conflict is not inevitable. There is still time and space for diplomacy,” said Austin.
“Mr Putin can do the right thing as well,” he said. “There is no reason that this situation has to devolve into conflict. He can choose to de-escalate. He can order his troops away.”
On Friday, US president Joe Biden said he would send a small number of US troops to eastern European and Nato countries “in the near term”.
The Pentagon has already placed about 8,500 US troops on stand-by for possible deployment to Europe amid Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine’s border.
“I’ll be moving troops to eastern Europe and the Nato countries in the near term. Not too many,” Biden told reporters on return to Washington from a speech in Philadelphia.
It comes as Vladimir Putin gave his first public comments on US and Nato responses to Russian proposals to rewrite the post-cold war security architecture. Putin said the US and its Nato allies had ignored Russia’s main security concerns, but promised to continue talks with the west, in a call with Emmanuel Macron.
The Russian leader said Moscow’s concerns about the expansion of Nato and the deployment of strike weapons near its borders had not been taken into account, according to a Kremlin readout of the phone call with his French counterpart.
Macron told Putin that Russia had to respect the sovereignty of states, according to the Élysée. Putin agreed to continue talks, so there was a feeling that “things have moved”, a French presidency official said.
More than 100,000 Russian troops have massed at the border with Ukraine, prompting Biden to tell Zelenskiy on Thursday there was “a distinct possibility that the Russians could invade Ukraine in February”.
Asked about the call, Zelenskiy said he did not consider the situation more tense than before. “There is a feeling abroad that there is war here. That’s not the case,” he said. “I am not saying an escalation is not possible … [but] we don’t need this panic.”
Europeans have taken a more cautious approach to predictions of a Russian attack than Washington. The head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service said on Friday that Russia was not yet fixed on an invasion, although it was prepared. “I believe that the decision to attack has not yet been made,” Bruno Kahl told Reuters.
In a call with Macron lasting longer than an hour, Putin said the US and Nato had not taken into account Moscow’s “fundamental concerns” about the expansion of Nato and deployment of strike missiles near the Russian border.
Washington and European capitals rejected Russia’s demands to veto Ukraine’s Nato membership, but set out proposals on other ways to improve security on the continent in the unpublished documents.
“The key question was ignored,” Putin was reported to have said, according to the Kremlin statement. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Russia’s relationship with Nato, the Russian president went on to say, were based on the principle that “no one should strengthen their security at the expense of other countries”.
The Russian leader also promised to “carefully study” the US and Nato written responses and continue a “Russian-French dialogue on the entire range of European security questions”.
Putin told the French leader Russia would continue talks in the so-called Normandy format that brings together representatives from France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, following talks earlier this week between the quartet of countries.
Putin told Macron that the French president was “the only one who he could have such serious discussions with”, according to the French presidency source.
There was “disagreement, but agreement in the necessity for dialogue and that the Europeans and France are part of the ongoing dialogue”, said the French official. “Dialogue is difficult and there were no solutions from this call.”
The French president has long called for dialogue with Russia, sometimes angering other EU member states that have preferred a more distanced approach.
Late Friday, British prime minister Boris Johnson said he was planning to visit the Ukraine region and hold crisis talks with Putin next week.
The Associated Press and Agence-France Press contributed to this report