By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News reporting from Budapest, Hungary
KYIV/BUDAPEST (Worthy News) – U.S. President Joe Biden warned Tuesday that the ongoing build-up of Russian forces near Ukraine could lead to “the largest invasion since World War II” and “change the world.”
His remarks added to concern in Kyiv, where Ukraine’s leadership tried to calm down the population saying an invasion from neighboring Russia “wasn’t imminent.”
That seemed at odds with the reality on the ground as the Ukrainian government had already received a shipment of U.S. military equipment to shore up defenses.
Biden told reporters that Russian President Vladimir Putin “continues to build forces along Ukraine’s border.” He warned an attack “would be the largest invasion since World War II. It would change the world.”
And while Biden claimed Tuesday that the U.S. has “no intention of putting American forces or NATO forces in Ukraine,” a U.S. security official told Worthy News that the American military is in the country.
Russia also expressed doubts about Biden’s remarks barking that the U.S. and the NATO military alliance are “flooding” Ukraine with weapons and western military advisors.
“There is no explanation for what the American fleet is doing near the Russian coast,” Moscow’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations added in published remarks.
Moscow says it has “no intention” to invade Ukraine, but Ukrainian intelligence officials say as many as 127,000 Russian forces are already near Ukraine’s borders.
Russia has also been holding military drills at multiple locations in Russia, which Western officials say led the United States and its NATO allies to rush to prepare for a possible war.
The U.S. and several allies have threatened sanctions like never before if Moscow sends its military into Ukraine. However, they gave few details, officially saying it’s best to keep Putin guessing.
However, Worthy News established sharp differences among NATO and European Union allies about imposing additional sanctions against Russia.
Hungary, a NATO and EU member state bordering Ukraine, expressed doubts about sanctions against Russia. Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian foreign minister, said Central and Eastern European nations like Hungary were heavily reliant on Russian energy supplies.
He suggested they are already suffering under existing sanctions imposed on Russia after annexing Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014. “Those who are now the loudest in demanding sanctions have a big role to play in maintaining” the status quo, Szijjártó stressed.
He indirectly lashed out at U.S. and EU threats of sanctions, saying “all sides” should consider Hungary and other countries that were under Russia’s sphere of influence for decades.
He said everything must be done to prevent a new Cold War from emerging, adding that the previous historic standoff resulted in “several wasted decades” for Eastern Europe. “We don’t want to fall prey to any [new] East-West conflict,” the minister said.
Russia provides about one-third of the crude oil and natural gas imported by the European Union, and countries such as Hungary are heavily dependent on Russian deliveries.
Minister Szijjártó’s comments came amid tense relations between Biden and Hungary’s hardline Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Hungary was the only EU country not invited at Biden’s recent Summit for Democracy, with the president expressing doubts about Orbán’s democratic credentials.
However, with Europe closer to war in decades, Hungary may be asked to back up NATO’s plans to help defend neighboring Ukraine. American troops are already in Hungary; a U.S. diplomatic source told Worthy News.
Yet, Hungary’s expressed reluctance over new sanctions suggested broader disagreements among allies on responding to Russia’s perceived aggression towards Ukraine.
In a show of at least some European unity in Berlin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron called for an easing of the crisis.
Scholz said he wanted “clear steps from Russia that will contribute to a de-escalation of the situation.” Macron, who said he would talk to Putin by phone Friday, added: “If there is aggression, there will be retaliation, and the cost will be very high.”
Hungary’s Orbán will separately meet Putin in Russia on February 1, officials said. Unlike several other nations, Hungary also said it had no plans to recall embassy staff from Ukraine.
The U.S., Britain, Australia, Germany, and Canada announced they withdrew some of their diplomats and dependents from Kyiv as military tensions rose.
Britain, no longer an EU member but a crucial NATO ally, also said it would support severe European sanctions despite Hungary’s expressed concerns.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed banning Russia from the Swift international payments system, a move which senior Russian officials said meant Europe would not be able to pay for and receive Russian products.
Britain, Johnson added, was also prepared to deploy troops to protect NATO allies in Eastern Europe near Ukraine. He raised the prospect of following the U.S. example by sending soldiers to Hungary in the case of conflict to shore up defenses there.
NATO said it was bolstering its deterrence in the Baltic Sea region, and the U.S. ordered 8,500 troops on higher alert for potential deployment to Europe as part of an alliance “response force” if necessary
Yet, as tensions rose, Ukrainian authorities sought to project calm. In the second televised speech to the nation in as many days, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians not to panic. “We are strong enough to keep everything under control and derail any attempts at destabilization,” he said.
The fact that several embassies withdraw staff members “doesn’t necessarily signal an inevitable escalation and is part of a complex diplomatic game,” he claimed.
“We are working together with our partners as a single team.”
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Parliament that “as of today, there are no grounds to believe” Russia will invade imminently.
He noted that Russian troops had not formed a battle group to force their way over the border.
“Don’t worry, sleep well,” he said. “No need to have your bags packed.”
Yet, in an interview late Monday, he acknowledged “risky scenarios” are possible.
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