Britain's top diplomat flew Wednesday to Moscow, seeking to defuse tensions raised by Russia's military buildup near Ukraine and warning that an invasion would bring "massive consequences for all involved."
"Russia has a choice here. We strongly encourage them to engage, de-escalate and choose the path of diplomacy," Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said ahead of departing on the first visit to Moscow by the U.K.'s top envoy in more than four years.
Russia has massed over 100,000 troops near Ukraine's border and has launched military maneuvers in the region, but says it has no plans to invade its neighbor. It wants guarantees from the West that NATO not allow Ukraine and other former Soviet nations as members, that the alliance halt weapon deployments there, and that it roll back its forces from Eastern Europe. The US and NATO flatly reject these demands.
Western nations say they will impose their toughest-ever sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals if Moscow invades Ukraine.
"Russia should be in no doubt about the strength of our response," said Truss, who will meet Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during the two-day visit.
Truss urged Moscow to abide by its international agreements that commit it to respecting Ukraine's independence and sovereignty.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova again rejected warnings from Washington and its allies of a possible Russian invasion, calling them "absurd."
"We have no aggressive plans, but I have a feeling that the US does," she said, adding that Washington's statements reminded her of the rhetoric before the US war in Iraq.
Several dozen Ukrainians rallied outside the US Embassy in Kyiv, urging Washington to use its international clout to prevent a Russian offensive.
Western leaders in recent weeks have engaged in multiple rounds of high-stakes diplomacy in hopes of de-escalating the crisis.
French President Emmanuel Macron held over five hours of talks Monday with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow before meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv the next day.
Macron said Putin told him he would not initiate an escalation, but also acknowledged that it will take time to find a diplomatic solution to the biggest security crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
He later flew to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Polish President Andrzej Duda, and they urged de-escalation by Russia and that it engage in a meaningful dialogue on European security.
Macron spoke by phone on Wednesday with US President Joe Biden to brief him on his meetings in Moscow and Kyiv, the White House said, and they discussed the ongoing efforts to resolve the crisis through diplomacy and deter Russia.
On Wednesday, Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares visited Kyiv to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba. Afterward, Albares reiterated that dialogue and de-escalation should be the priorities. Kuleba urged more sanctions against Russia and said "there is a chance to resolve the crisis through diplomatic means."
Scholz is expected in Kyiv and Moscow on Feb. 14-15. He met Monday with Biden, who vowed that the Nord Stream 2 Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline will be blocked in the event of an invasion. Such a move against the pipeline, which has been completed but is not yet operating, would hurt Russia economically but also cause energy supply problems for Germany.
Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov criticized the US and its allies for turning the Nord Stream 2 "into an instrument of pressure on Moscow" and called recent statements about it "a political circus."
Japan has decided to divert some of its gas reserves to Europe amid growing concern over possible disruptions of supplies due to the crisis, said Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Koichi Hagiuda. The decision was made at the request of the United States and European Union.
US and European officials have been coordinating with global natural gas suppliers to cushion the impact in case Russia cuts off natural gas supplies.
NATO also has stepped up the deployment of troops to bolster the alliance's eastern flank.
The US has begun to move the 2nd Cavalry Regiment's stryker squadron from Vilseck, Germany, to Romania, which borders Ukraine. US officials have said they would send about 1,000 NATO troops.
The first troops arrived in Romania in the past 24 hours, said the regiment's commander, Col. Joe Ewers. The troops will bolster 900 US service members already in the country.
"We are always prepared to meet any mission as is required," he said in Vilseck. "But the focus will be on training and we will initially partner with multiple Romanian elements within the region there."
About 1,700 US soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division are going to Poland and about half have now arrived, with more expected to flow in during the coming days, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said. Britain also has pledged to send 350 more troops to Poland and already has sent anti-tank weapons to Ukraine.
US consular services in Poland are preparing for any surge of Americans living in Ukraine who may decide to flee if Russia invades. US troops deployed to Poland have developed contingency plans to assist Americans fleeing Ukraine through Poland in case of a Russian attack, according to a White House official who was not authorized to comment.
The State Department continues to urge Americans in Ukraine, including nonessential US Embassy staff, to leave now.
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter conflict since 2014, when Ukraine's Kremlin-friendly president was ousted, Moscow annexed Crimea and then backed a separatist insurgency in the east of the country. The fighting between Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces has killed over 14,000 people.
Talks on the separatist conflict will take place Thursday, when foreign policy advisers from Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine — the so-called Normandy format — will meet in Berlin.
France and Germany helped broker a peace deal, known as the Minsk agreements, that ended large-scale fighting in eastern Ukraine. The deal, however, has failed to bring a political settlement of the conflict, and efforts to resolve it have stalled. The Kremlin has accused Kyiv of sabotaging the deal, and Ukrainian officials in recent weeks said that implementing it would hurt Ukraine
Some European leaders see talks on the accords as a possible way to ease tensions in the larger crisis.
Scholz's spokesman Wolfgang Buechner said Wednesday that the parties to the talks "reaffirmed their commitment to narrowing current disagreements with a view to moving forward, and that is what tomorrow's meeting should be about."
"Germany is strongly and tirelessly committed to the Normandy format, where we have a special responsibility and, together with France, are making a very special contribution to the attempt to de-escalate the situation in and around Ukraine," he said.