Ukraine crisis – Germany to warn Russia of ‘heavy consequences’ – Pope calls for peace – US begins OSCE staff pullout

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Germany’s Scholz to warn Russia of ‘heavy consequences’ if Ukraine attacked, source says

The German chancellor will tell President Vladimir Putin at a meeting this week that Russia will face “heavy consequences” if it attacks Ukraine but Berlin does not expect concrete results from the discussions, a government source said on Sunday.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz travels to Kyiv on Monday to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and to Moscow on Tuesday to meet Putin as part of diplomatic efforts to ease tensions.

The United States has said the Russian military, which has more than 100,000 troops massed near Ukraine, could invade at any moment. Russia denies having any such plans and says its actions are a response to aggression by NATO countries.

“The chancellor will make clear that any attack on Ukraine will have heavy consequences … and that one should not underestimate the unity between the European Union, United States and Britain,” the German government source said.

Scholz would tell Putin the troop buildup could “only be interpreted as a threat”, the source told a briefing with journalists, adding: “I do not expect concrete results but these direct talks are important.”

Putin, jostling for influence in post-Cold War Europe, wants security guarantees from Biden to block Kyiv’s entry into NATO and regarding missile deployments near Russia’s borders.

A moratorium on any Ukrainian accession to NATO was not part of Scholz’s “tool kit”, the source said, adding that “what happens on the ground” would determine whether Russia was de-escalating.

“The current situation is per se already a destabilising situation that can get out of control,” the source said.

The source said Scholz hoped to discuss with Zelenskiy and Putin ways to make progress on implementing the Minsk peace accords that seek to end a separatist conflict in east Ukraine.

“It is not the first time that one has talked about these things with Putin, nor will it be the last,” the source said.

Pope leads crowds in prayer for peace in Ukraine

Pope Francis on Sunday led crowds in St. Peter’s Square in silent prayer for Ukraine, appealing to the consciences of politicians to seek peace.

Pope Francis during the Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, 13 February 2022. EPA-EFE/Giuseppe Lami

“The news from Ukraine is very worrying,” said Francis, who has made many appeals for peace in Ukraine and last month led an international day of prayer for peace.

“I entrust every effort for peace to the intercession of the Virgin Mary and the consciences of responsible politicians,” he told thousands of people in the square for his weekly blessing and message.

“Let us pray in silence,” he said. The crowd went quiet for about half a minute. 

Francis spoke a day after U.S. President Joe Biden told Russia’s Vladimir Putin an hour-long call that the West would respond decisively to any invasion of Ukraine, adding such a step would produce widespread suffering and isolate Moscow.

Moscow has repeatedly denied it plans to invade and has dismissed such warnings as “hysteria”.

U.S. says diplomacy still open to end Ukraine standoff with Russia

The United States said the diplomatic path remained open to end a standoff with Moscow over Ukraine but said the risk of Russian military action was high enough to warrant pulling U.S. embassy staff out of Kyiv.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was speaking after talks on Saturday with Japanese and South Korean counterparts, following Washington’s warning that Russia’s military, which has more than 100,000 troops massed near Ukraine, could invade at any moment.

Moscow, which has repeatedly denied it plans to invade and said it is responding to aggression by NATO allies, has dismissed those warnings as “hysteria”.

“The diplomatic path remains open. The way for Moscow to show that it wants to pursue that path is simple. It should de-escalate, rather than escalate,” Blinken said after his meetings in the U.S. Pacific archipelago of Hawaii.

In an hour-long call on Saturday, U.S. President Joe Biden told Russia’s Vladimir Putin that the West would respond decisively to any invasion of Ukraine, adding such a step would produce widespread suffering and isolate Moscow.

U.S. begins OSCE staff pullout from eastern Ukraine

U.S. staff at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) started to withdraw in cars from the rebel-held city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine on Sunday, a Reuters witness said, amid fears of a possible Russian invasion.

A handout satellite image made available by Maxar Technologies shows tents and equipment at the southern end of the Oktyabrskoye airfield, Crimea, 10 February 2022 (issued 12 February 2022). More than 550 troop tents and hundreds of vehicles have arrived at the Oktyabrskoye airfield north of Simferopol, and a new deployment was identified near the town of Slavne, Maxar says. EPA-EFE/MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES HANDOUT

The OSCE did not respond to a request for comment.

Several armoured cars with the OSCE’s logo were loaded with suitcases and seen leaving the monitoring mission’s headquarters early on Sunday.

The OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine has been deployed in eastern Ukraine since the outbreak of a war between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed forces that Kyiv says has killed more than 14,000 people.

The United States and its allies have urged their citizens to leave Ukraine right away to avoid the threat of a Russian invasion, including an air assault, warning an attack could occur at any time.

Russia, which has built up military forces to the north, east and south of Ukraine, has rubbished the idea it plans to attack and has accused Western nations of spreading lies.

Two sources told Reuters that the United States decided to withdraw its staff from Ukraine, while Britain moved its monitors from rebel-held areas to ones under government control.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, told Reuters that Kyiv had an interest in the Special Monitoring Mission working at full strength, but declined to comment further on what he said was an OSCE matter.

Denmark’s OSCE monitors also left Donetsk, one diplomatic source said. Reuters could not immediately establish whether they were leaving the country or only rebel-held territory.

Overall, 21 OSCE monitors left the rebel-held city and more than 30 others also planned to withdraw from nearby government-controlled areas, a diplomatic source said.

Out of 680 OSCE monitors in Ukraine, 515 are based in the eastern part of the country, according to the mission’s official website.

Lufthansa considering suspension of air traffic in Ukraine

Lufthansa is considering suspending air traffic in Ukraine but has not yet made a decision, a spokesperson for the company said on Sunday.

“Lufthansa is monitoring the situation in Ukraine very closely,” the spokesperson said in response to a query from Reuters.

Ukraine sees no point closing airspace amid Russia tension, says official

Ukraine sees no point closing its airspace amid the tensions with Moscow, a senior Ukrainian official said on Sunday, after the United States warned that Russia could invade the eastern European nation at any time.

Dutch carrier KLM said https://www.reuters.com/world/biden-putin-speak-ukraine-warnings-mount-2022-02-12 it would stop flying to Ukraine and Germany’s Lufthansa said it was considering suspending flights. Ukraine’s SkyUp said on Sunday it had to divert one flight after the owner of the leased aircraft barred it from entering Ukrainian airspace.

“The most important point is that Ukraine itself sees no point in closing the sky. This is nonsense. And, in my opinion, it somewhat resembles a kind of partial blockade,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.

“If particular air carriers decide to reconfigure the flight schedule, this certainly has nothing to do with the decisions or policies of our state,” he told Reuters.

The United States, its Western allies and other nations have been scaling back or evacuating embassy staff and have advised their citizens not to travel to Ukraine amid the standoff.

Washington says the Russian military, which has more than 100,000 troops massed near Ukraine, could invade at any moment https://www.reuters.com/world/biden-putin-speak-ukraine-warnings-mount-2022-02-12. Moscow denies having any such plan and has described such warnings as “hysteria”.

At Kyiv’s Borispil Airport, the largest in Ukraine, there was little sign on Saturday of an exodus.

Oksana Yurchenko was travelling back to Australia with her child. “We were visiting our family here in Ukraine. We were planning to stay a bit longer but this situation is a bit scary,” the chef and a beauty salon owner said.

Australia has advised its citizens to leave Ukraine and said on Sunday it was evacuating its embassy.

Ricky, a Scotsman who lives in Ukraine, said he saw no sign of public anxiety on the streets. “I do not see anyone in fear in Ukraine, everyone is just getting on with their life,” he said at the airport as he waited for a flight to go on holiday.

Ukraine’s SkyUp said in a statement that one of its planes, carrying 175 passengers from Portugal, had to land in Moldova on Saturday instead of continuing to Ukraine after the Ireland-based owner of the leased aircraft prevented the aircraft entering Ukrainian airspace. It did not give further details.

KLM, part of Air France, said it would stop flying to Ukraine immediately, news agency ANP reported on Saturday, while Lufthansa said it was considering suspending air traffic to Ukraine but had yet to decide.

Two third of the 298 passengers killed when Malaysia Airlines MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014, as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, were Dutch citizens.

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