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US pulls most diplomats from Kyiv as tension mounts

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In a sign of growing anxiety, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has ordered a “temporary” repositioning of 160 National Guard trainers from Ukraine to “elsewhere in Europe”, the Pentagon announced on Saturday. The trainers worked alongside an undisclosed number of Army Green Berets, who will remain in Ukraine for the time being, officials said.

Despite warnings, US officials believe Mr Putin may not have made the final decision to invade yet, and the West’s diplomatic scramble continued on Saturday. French President Emmanuel Macron spent an hour and 40 minutes on the phone with Mr. Putin, Mr. Macron’s office said.

On Saturday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Mr. Austin telephoned their Russian counterparts separately. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky continued to downplay the threat, expressing frustration with Washington.

“An enemy’s best friend is panic in our country,” Zelensky told reporters, in English, as he observed a police training exercise in southern Ukraine. “And all this information – which only helps to panic, does not help us.”

Mr Putin is likely to offer more public clues about his position in the coming days. Ushakov said Russia’s response to last month’s US security proposals would soon be made public. On Tuesday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will travel to Moscow, after having met the day before in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. And on Wednesday – the day US officials have said a Russian invasion could begin – Mr Putin is due to welcome Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to Moscow.

The diplomatic flurry came as Russia’s military posture continued to grow more worrisome. More than 30 Russian Navy ships – including frigates, missile boats and submarine chasers – have set sail for exercises in the Black Sea, The Russian Defense Ministry said. The deployment reinforced the effective encirclement of Ukraine by Russian forces from all sides except the west.

Ukrainian military officials are increasingly concerned about the deployment of special forces and airborne troops in areas near the Ukrainian border. Two days ago, the Kremlin deployed more than 50 attack and transport helicopters to Machulishchi in Belarus and Valuiki in Russia, both within easy striking distance of Ukraine, a senior Ukrainian military official said on Saturday. . These helicopters would be used to provide close air support to any ground forces used in an invasion.