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Russia insists it won't start a war as Ukraine seeks to tone down the invasion rhetoric from the U.S.

Ukraine president tells West: Don't create panic
Ukraine president tells West: Don't create panic 02:04

Russia's top diplomat insisted on Friday that Moscow isn't going to start a war with Ukraine. But with more than 100,000 Russian troops massed along the country's borders, he also said Moscow would not "be ignored."

"If it depends on the Russian Federation, there will be no war," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. "We do not want wars, but we will not allow our interests to be rudely attacked, we will not allow our interests to be ignored."

Russia's attempt to divide

Amid warnings from the White House that Russia could again invade Ukraine, as it did in 2014, within weeks, Moscow appeared to be embracing a divide and conquer strategy — seeking to exploit any glint of light between the U.S. and its European allies. The latest salvo in the war of words between Moscow and the West came in the form of a backhanded compliment.

Russia reacts to U.S. letter as Ukraine tensions mount 02:04

Lavrov lauded the White House's written response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's demands that NATO pull its forces back from Russia's western borders and reject new members in the region. But the praise came at the expense of the NATO alliance itself.

"Against the background of the paper that was sent to us from NATO, the American response looks almost like a model for diplomatic decency," Lavrov said, blasting NATO's earlier response to Russia's demands as "so ideological" that he was "a little ashamed of those who wrote these texts."

It was a pointed jab at the U.S.-led trans-Atlantic security alliance, which Putin views as a threat to Russia's power and influence in the region. That power has waned since the fall of the Soviet Union and Putin is determined to prevent more ex-Soviet states, like Ukraine, from being folded under the NATO umbrella.

On Friday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he wouldn't risk informing any adversary of the exact "threshold" that would draw a unified military response from the alliance, but he said NATO would "always be sure we have the necessary forces in the right place at the right time to defend and protect all allies, and we've done that for more than 70 years."

How urgent a threat?

Russia's loosely veiled attempt to imply division among its adversaries came on the heels of President Joe Biden's phone call on Thursday with his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. That call, despite readouts from both Washington and Kyiv stressing unity, appeared to highlight some level of discomfort in the Ukrainian capital with the urgency Mr. Biden's administration is placing on the threat of a Russian invasion.

Ukraine's President Zelenskiy is seen during a call with U.S. President Biden in Kyiv
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is seen during a call with U.S. President Joe Biden, in Kyiv, Ukraine, January 27, 2022. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout/REUTERS

A source familiar with the call told CBS News that Zelenskyy asked the U.S. to tone down its rhetoric about a possible imminent invasion.

The White House rejected as "completely false" reports that Mr. Biden had warned Zelenskyy on the phone that his country was "virtually certain" to see Russian forces invade imminently, and even "sack" the capital city. 

A National Security Council spokesperson said in a tweet that Mr. Biden had instead told Zelenskyy there was "a distinct possibility" of an invasion in February. "Reports of anything more or different than that are completely false."

Ukraine president warns of possible Russian attacks on U.S. 02:22

The White House has warned for weeks, however, that Russia could launch an invasion as soon as this February. U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence have also warned of the possibility of Russian airstrikes on Ukrainian command and control centers, including those located around Kyiv.

The Ukrainians' most immediate concern is that Putin will opt for less overt aggressions — smaller-scale border incursions or "false-flag" attacks that Moscow might use to accuse Ukraine's forces of an escalation.

Kyiv believes any Russian assault would likely be preceded by cyberattacks targeting the country's infrastructure, to create instability and erode confidence in Zelenskyy's government. Putin has already shown a preference for such tactics.

Ukraine prepares for possible Russian attack 02:24

Mr. Biden and his European allies have stressed that any Russian troops crossing onto Ukrainian soil will be considered an invasion and will be met with swift and severe sanctions against Moscow.

NATO and the U.S. will not send combat troops in to defend Ukraine, which is just a NATO partner and not a full member. Instead, the forces being deployed or put on alert are meant to reassure nervous NATO members who fear this could spill over into a regional conflict and threaten them. 

The State Department acknowledged on Thursday that the U.S. is considering deploying unilateral forces to states along NATO's eastern flank since the U.S. can move faster than the NATO, which requires consensus among the allies.  

Appeals for strategic calm

Despite the soaring tension, Zelenskyy has consistently urged the Ukrainian people to remain calm. His government knows that panic — people clearing out supermarket shelves or trying to flee the country — would be massively destabilizing.

That may be exactly what Russia wants: British intelligence has warned that Putin could try to exploit instability in Ukraine to reinstall a friendly government there.

On the streets of Kyiv, everything looked normal on Friday. The prevailing calm may be largely due to the fact that, for Ukrainians, this is nothing new: They've been living with Russian aggression for years. Since Putin's forces last invaded in 2014, annexing the Crimean Peninsula, war has simmered between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country.

A view shows the rebel-held city of Donetsk
A woman passes by a T-34 tank and other Soviet-era military vehicles while walking in a park in the rebel-held city of Donetsk, Ukraine, January 27, 2022. ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/REUTERS

The conflict had already claimed more than 14,000 lives, according to Kyiv, before the tension skyrocketed with Russia's movement over the course of the last year of tens of thousands of forces to the border region. Moscow insists the troops and weapons are only there for exercises, that they pose no threat to Russia's neighbors, and that it can do what it wants with its military on its own territory.

The symbolic heart of Ukraine's capital, a large central square in Kyiv known as the Maidan, is a reminder of just how fragile the country is, caught in a tug of war between Russia and the West.

Almost eight years ago exactly, CBS News was in the Maidan covering massive protests against the country's previous president, who was pro-Russian. State security forces opened fire on the protesters, and it ended with dead bodies on the square.

Ukrainian crisis: Protesters control Kiev as president flees 01:40

The pro-Russian factions in Ukrainian politics have not disappeared, they've just been voted out of leadership. Zelenskyy knows Putin could try to exploit any opportunity to put friendly faces back in power in Kyiv.

Clearly there are varying assessments in Ukraine, the U.S. and other NATO countries about what Putin really plans to do. Ukraine's government knows there's a threat, however, and its government is trying very hard to avoid falling into a trap and panicking its roughly 45 million inhabitants.

Pressure and diplomacy

The U.S. has said the ball is now in Russia's court. Putin is still formulating his response to the U.S. and NATO's replies to his demands. He spoke on Friday with French President Emmanuel Macron, and French officials said they had agreed on the need to deescalate the situation and to continue talking.   

The Biden administration believes time is running short to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the crisis. In a bid to increase the pressure on Russia, the U.S. has called for a meeting at the United Nations to make its case, in public view. 

The U.S. called for an open meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Monday — a day before Russia assumes the rotating presidency of the council and therefore gets to set its agenda — to discuss what U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield called Russia's "threatening behavior."

Thomas-Greenfield said world powers needed to examine "what is at stake for Ukraine, for Russia, for Europe, and for the international order should Russia further invade Ukraine."

The open meeting was to take place Monday at 10 a.m. Eastern.  

CBS News' Justine Redman, Mary Ilyushina and Pamela Falk contributed to this report.

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