President Vladimir Putin says the West has "ignored" Moscow's security concerns over the expansion of NATO as the United States again urged Russia to withdraw its forces from areas near Ukraine's borders amid continued fears that the troop buildup could be a prelude to an invasion of its western neighbor.
In Ukraine, meanwhile, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pushed back on some of the dire warnings from the United States about an imminent Russian attack as he urged people to remain calm.
Putin’s conversation with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, on January 28 came as tensions continue to soar, with more than 100,000 Russian troops deployed to regions north, east, and south of Ukraine’s borders.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that Putin has all the military capabilities ready to act against Ukraine and that it now comes down to a political decision on what action Moscow will take.
"While we don't believe that President Putin has made a final decision to use these forces against Ukraine, he clearly now has that capability," Austin told reporters.
He said Putin has "multiple options" available, "including the seizure of cities and significant territories, but also coercive acts and provocative political acts like the recognition of breakaway territories."
After Putin’s phone call with Macron, the Kremlin issued a statement saying the Russian side would study written responses submitted by the United States and NATO this week concerning Moscow's demands on security guarantees "after which, it will decide on further actions."
Russia is demanding a major restructuring of Europe’s security architecture in exchange for a de-escalation of the crisis over Ukraine. The United States and NATO, however, have largely rejected the demands, including the call to permanently shut the door on Ukraine -- and other former Soviet republics -- from ever joining the Western alliance.
NATO also said allied deployments of troops and military equipment in Eastern Europe are not negotiable.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, speaking at an Atlantic Council forum on January 28, said the alliance was ready to step up its presence in Eastern Europe to reassure allies and prove to Russia its resolve amid the Ukraine crisis. He added that Russia was deploying thousands of combat-ready troops and military hardware in Belarus, which borders NATO's eastern flank, as well as Ukraine.
Western intelligence agencies estimate that more than 100,000 Russian troops have already been moved into the border regions with Ukraine.
Stoltenberg, however, noted that, at this point, there is "no certainty" that Russia plans to invade Ukraine.
Speaking to reporters on January 28 in Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that tensions with Russia have not increased and that the main risk to his country is destabilization from within.
Zelenskiy said that while he couldn't rule out a further escalation of tensions, it is not clear the start of a war with Russia is certain.
"I don't consider the situation now 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."
Earlier on January 28, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow John Sullivan said Washington was now waiting for Russia's response to its written proposals for a diplomatic path out of the Ukraine crisis, voicing hope that meeting between American and Russian diplomats could then follow.
Sullivan said diplomacy was the only way forward, but warned that could only happen if Russia starts dismantling its buildup near the Ukraine border.
"If I put a gun on the table and say that I come in peace, that's threatening," Sullivan told an online briefing.
He also warned that economic sanctions would be just one part of the West's response if Russia were to invade Ukraine, saying that other measures would include export controls, greater defense of allies in Europe, and preventing the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline from Russia to Germany from operating.
U.S. officials have indicated that possible punitive measures against Russia such as disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT system of global bank transfers or imposing an expanded ban on high-tech exports to Russia are under consideration.
Sullivan also said the size of the Russian military buildup on Ukraine's borders would allow an invasion with little warning.
He added that "what the Russian government has said publicly is that it has no intention to invade Ukraine, but the facts on the ground tell a much different story."
His comments came hot on the heels of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's reassurances that it won't be Russia's decision to start a war against Ukraine -- but with the caveat that Moscow will not allow its interests to be "ignored."
Washington laid out in its response a "serious diplomatic path" to resolve the Ukraine crisis, while repeating threats of unprecedented economic sanctions should Russian further invade Ukraine.
"If it depends on the Russian Federation, there won't be a war," Lavrov said in an interview with Russian radio stations in an indication Moscow is willing to continue to engage in finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
"We do not want wars, but we won't allow our interests to be rudely trod upon or to be ignored," Lavrov said, adding that the U.S. proposals were "almost an example of diplomatic propriety," compared to NATO's highly "idealized" response.
Lavrov said he expected to meet U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the coming weeks for a new round of talks amid the crisis, though ultimately Putin would decide how to respond to the American proposals.
He added that a new round of U.S. sanctions against Moscow would likely lead to the severing of relations between the United States and Russia.
"The Americans were told, including at the level of presidential contacts, that this package...accompanied by the total disconnection from the financial-economic systems controlled by the West, would be tantamount to the severing of relations," Lavrov said.
Western governments have also called on Russia to pull back its troops from the border regions and from Belarus, a move Moscow has rejected, saying it can place soldiers anywhere it wants on its own territory.
Speaking to foreign reporters in Kyiv, Zelenskiy called for calm and appeared to downplay the urgency of the threat, in contrast to what U.S. officials have been saying in recent weeks.
"I don't consider the situation now more tense than before. There is a feeling abroad that there is war here. That's not the case," he said January 28. "I am not saying an escalation is not possible...[but] we don't need this panic.
“Are there tanks driving on our streets? No,” Zelenskiy said. “But if you are not here, that's the sense you are getting in England, Germany, France, in Lithuania.... The impression you are getting from the media is that there is a war going on here, that soldiers are marching down our streets, that a mobilization has been declared, that people are going somewhere. That's not the case. We don't need this panic.”
In Minsk, authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, a close ally of Putin, sounded a bellicose note, saying Belarus would go to war if Russia was attacked, pledging to host "hundreds of thousands" of Russian troops in the event of war.
Lukashenka said in a televised national address that Belarus would go to war if it was attacked first.
Several rounds of diplomacy held in European cities this month between the West and Moscow have failed to reach a breakthrough, although the sides have shown a willingness to continue talks.
Moscow has been backing separatist fighters in an ongoing war in eastern Ukraine that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since 2014, the same year Russian illegally annexed Crimea.