Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky had said attack set for Wednesday

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Feb. 14 (UPI) — Aides to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky clarified a statement made Monday as “ironic” in which he declared he had been “told” a Russian invasion would be launched on Wednesday.

Without citing the source of his information, Zelensky on Monday wrote on his personal Facebook page, “We are told that Feb. 16 will be the day of the attack. We will make it the Day of Unity.”

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He continued, “The relevant decree has already been signed. On this day, we will hoist national flags, put on blue and yellow ribbons and show the world our unity.

“We have one great European aspiration — we want freedom and are ready to fight for it. Fourteen thousand defenders and civilians killed in this war [against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region] are watching us from the sky. And we will not betray their memory.”

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However, hours after making the post, Zelensky’s aides told NBC News and CNN that the president — a former comedian — was only speaking ironically and was not being literal. Rather, he was sarcastically citing media speculation pinning Wednesday as an invasion date, they said.

Politico and other international outlets had cited officials based in Washington, London, Ukraine and elsewhere in recent days specifying Wednesday a date when an invasion could come.

Zelensky’s intent with the post, the aides said, was to reassure Ukrainians the country is for any contingency and to downplay speculation over an imminent invasion as overly alarmist.

More than 100,000 Russian troops have been massed along the country’s border with Ukraine for months, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeated his opposition to Ukraine possibly joining NATO. Putin has said that such a move would represent a security threat to Russia.

Fears of an invasion rose significantly over the weekend when several Western leaders advised their citizens to leave the country, and some airlines stopped flying into Kiev.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Sunday declared that Russia’s military buildup has reached a point that an invasion could take place “any day now.”

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Shortly after Zelensky posted his statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the United States is relocating its diplomats from Kiev.

“We are in the process of temporarily relocating our embassy operations in Ukraine from our embassy in Kiev to Lviv due to the dramatic acceleration in the buildup of Russian forces,” at the Ukrainian border, Blinken said in a statement Monday.

The move follows U.S. President Joe Biden’s call with Putin on Saturday in which Biden warned him of “swift and severe costs” if Russia moves forward with an invasion.

Biden also told Zelensky Sunday that the United States would respond “swiftly and decisively” to a Russian invasion.

The Ukrainian leader’s Facebook comments and accompanying video address to the nation came as he participated in a high-profile meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz earlier in the day.

During the meeting, both said Ukraine’s aspiration to join NATO is not yet a realistic possibility — walking back one of the main issues for Russia amid concerns that it’s planning an invasion.

Scholz and Zelensky met for about two hours on Monday before giving the remarks at a joint news conference.

“The question of [Ukrainian] membership in alliances is practically not on the agenda,” Scholz said. “And that is why it is strange to observe that the Russian government is making something that is practically not on the agenda the subject of major political problems.”

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Scholz’s visit to Kiev to meet with Zelensky was the latest in a series of moves by Western leaders to pledge support for Ukraine and caution Moscow against military intervention. Scholz is scheduled to travel to Moscow and meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.

“For us, NATO membership is not the absolute goal,” Zelensky said Monday. “That’s not a question that comes from us.”

Passengers arrive from Kiev, Ukraine, at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sunday after Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called on citizens to leave Ukraine immediately. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI

A Russian diplomat, however, said Monday that Moscow would be well within its rights to attack Ukraine to protect Russian citizens who live in the country.

“We will not invade Ukraine unless we are provoked to do that,” Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador to the European Union, told The Guardian. “If the Ukrainians launch an attack against Russia, you shouldn’t be surprised if we counterattack. Or, if they start blatantly killing Russian citizens anywhere — Donbas or wherever.”

Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson were scheduled to speak on Monday afternoon about the latest involving Russia and Ukraine.

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“The signs are … that they are at least planning for something that could take place as early as … the next 48 hours,” Johnson said, according to the Evening Standard.

Late Sunday, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said that Moscow had not yet responded to requests for a meeting to address various concerns. Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to Britain, said that Kiev is ready to make concessions to avoid war.

“We are not a member of NATO right now and to avoid war we are ready for many concessions and that is what we are doing in conversations with the Russians,” Prystaiko said, according to Al Jazeera. “It has nothing to do with NATO which is enshrined in the constitution.”

Ukraine has also said there were no plans to close civilian air space, as Kuleba asserted that the “situation remains under control” in a video statement on Sunday.

“We are prepared for any scenario of development of events,” he said. “We have not been sitting with our arms folded for the last months, we have prepared for all scenarios — absolutely all — and as of now we are ready for them.”