Ukrainian, German leaders walk back NATO issue amid fears of Russian invasion

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Feb. 14 (UPI) — During a high-profile meeting in Kiev Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that 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.

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“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.”

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

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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.

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

“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, heightened tensions a bit on Monday by saying 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.”

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

“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.”

Specifically, Scholz was expected to tell Zelensky on Monday how Germany can help stabilize Ukraine’s economy in case of an attack and warn Putin that there will be a great economic cost if he invades the former Soviet republic.

Johnson, who’s faced mounting criticism in recent weeks over a scandal involving social parties during COVID-19 lockdowns, also said he plans to continue talks and caution Russia against an invasion. Zelensky has invited Biden to Kiev “in the coming days” as a show of support for his country.

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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.”

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.”