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Pressure mounts on Putin as Ukraine crisis reaches a fever pitch

Ukrainians calmly await possible Russian invasion
Holly Williams meets Ukrainians in the firing line of possible Russian invasion 02:22

Kyiv — With more Russian forces gathering along Ukraine's borders and the White House warning that President Vladimir Putin could order an invasion "any time," President Biden and his Ukrainian counterpart agreed over the weekend to continue pursuing diplomacy, but also deterrence. The U.S. is pulling out the few troops it's had in the country, helping train Ukraine's own forces, and all U.S. diplomatic personnel are expected to leave the capital by Tuesday.

The personnel movements and the continuing influx of U.S. and other NATO forces to countries near Russia's western borders were a clear sign of the concern in Washington and European capitals that Putin will make a decision to either invade Ukraine, or try to frame Ukraine's forces for an incident that he can use as a pretext for an attack. 

Mr. Biden and his NATO allies have warned that any Russian invasion of Ukraine would be bring "swift and severe costs" for Russia through sanctions.

Biden speaks to Putin, Zelenskyy as officials warn a Russian invasion of Ukraine could begin anytime 01:51

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Sunday on "Face the Nation" that the U.S. and its allies were "watching very carefully for the possibility that there is a pretext or a false flag operation to kick off the Russian action, in which Russian intelligence services conduct some kind of attack on Russian proxy forces in eastern Ukraine or on Russian citizens, and then blame it on the Ukrainians."

In a phone call on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy invited Mr. Biden to come to Kyiv, saying it would be a "powerful signal" and contribute to efforts to deescalate the crisis. Their call came on the heels of a conversation between Presidents Biden and Putin, which failed to yield any breakthrough.

Diplomatic full-court press

While the White House has stressed that a diplomatic path remains open to Moscow, sources told CBS News on Sunday that the Biden administration was preparing to withdraw all U.S. government personnel from Kyiv by Tuesday.

America's NATO allies in Europe continue working to hammer out a diplomatic solution with Moscow. Germany's leader was in Kyiv on Monday to talk with Zelenskyy, before heading to Moscow on Tuesday. Before his meetings, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Putin's government needed to show "immediate signs" of deescalation to convince the West that Moscow's repeated denials of any plan to attack Ukraine were unfounded.

Chancellor Scholz travels to Kiev
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, is received at St. Mary's Palace by Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 14, 2022. Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance/Getty

While refusing to explain its months-long buildup of more than 100,000 troops around Ukraine's borders, however, Putin's government has dismissed the U.S. warnings of an imminent attack as "hysteria."

The Kremlin has demanded guarantees from NATO that it will not admit new members along his country's western borders — most importantly that Ukraine won't join the Western military alliance. U.S. and NATO leaders have ruled out any such promise, but the Ukrainian ambassador in London sparked a flurry of speculation on Monday by suggesting that his country could agree to at least put its NATO ambitions on hold.

Ambassador Vadym Prystaiko's remarks were quickly walked back by both the diplomat himself and his bosses in Kyiv, who stressed the pursuit of NATO membership as a cornerstone of Ukraine's foreign policy. 

"NATO membership isn't negotiable," Ukraine's U.N. Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya told CBS News' Pamela Falk on Monday.

Even Russia said it didn't see the envoy's initial remarks as a sign of any shift in Ukraine's stance — but the Kremlin spokesman said if Ukraine were to rule out NATO membership, it would go a long way toward easing Russia's own security concerns.

Pressure continued to mount on Putin Monday, with the value of Russian stocks and its currency falling as the world's seven most developed economies issued a new admonition to Moscow.

"Our immediate priority is to support efforts to deescalate the situation," G7 finance ministers said in a joint statement, warning that if Moscow were to opt for increased military action against Ukraine, they were "prepared to collectively impose economic and financial sanctions which will have massive and immediate consequences on the Russian economy."

Ukrainians caught in the middle

The outcome of the diplomatic blitz could mean life or death for many Ukrainians, but Kyiv remained calm on Tuesday. There was no panic, and little sense that the war against Russian-backed separatists — simmering in the east since Putin's troops last invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014 — was about to erupt into a wider conflict.

As CBS News senior foreign correspondent Holly Williams reports, Ukraine's military is carrying out exercises of its own as Russian troops hold war games around their borders. But Ukraine's forces know they would be vastly outnumbered if Russia were to invade.

Russia readies for war in Ukraine as U.S. weighs response 03:38

The Ukrainian government has consistently urged people to remain calm, and life has continued pretty much as normal. But Williams said there was no doubt that being caught in the middle of a standoff between the world's great powers has Ukrainians worried.

She visited a farmers' market on Kyiv's John McCain Street — the late American senator is beloved in the country because he pushed the U.S. to send weapons to Ukraine to help it battle the Russian-backed separatists in the east. U.S. officials have said a full Russian invasion could cause 100,000 civilian casualties, and shoppers in Kyiv know they would be in the firing line.

But Alina Kumbachsia told CBS News that she and other Kyiv residents, "just live in the moment." The fitness instructor said nearly eight years of Russian aggression have already made Ukrainians immune to panic.

"We don't know what will be, because this is not our decisions," she told Williams. "We don't want war, we want normal, happy life."

Ukraine-Russia map
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With tens of thousands of forces deployed to Belarus — for joint exercises that Moscow has said will end on February 20 — Ukraine is now close to being encircled by Russian troops. Many of the country's ports are already effectively blockaded, and there's fear that the intimidating Russian military drills just over the borders could be an overture to the Russians moving in.

It's thought an invasion could start with cyberattacks, and airstrikes. Kyiv's subway system also serves as the Ukrainian capital's biggest bomb shelter. The capital city's government says it has an evacuation plan, as well as preparations to maintain electricity, heating and communications in case of an attack.

Back on John McCain Street, Konstantin Bilotserkivskyi told Williams that he has an emergency bag packed, just in case he has to run from a Russian attack.

"The worst thing, you feel helpless, you know? You cannot impact it anyhow — it's just matter of will it happen or not, and the only thing you can do is wait," he told CBS News.

The Ukrainian government has demanded an urgent, high-level meeting with Russia by Tuesday, but says Moscow continues to ignore requests to explain why there are more than 100,000 Russian forces massed around Ukraine's borders.

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