A flurry of diplomacy furthered hopes for a diplomatic push to avert the threat of large-scale war in Europe late on February 20, but Western warnings sounded more dire over spiraling tensions around Ukraine.
The calls from Kyiv and the West for peace talks came as Ukraine reported continued shelling from areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists, days after those separatists announced evacuations and a general mobilization.
Reuters cited a witness as saying an explosion had been heard in the center of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, which has been held by Russia-backed rebels for eight years.
RFE/RL could not independently confirm the blast occurred.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden convened a National Security Council meeting over the Ukraine crisis on February 20, as senior U.S. officials were warning that diplomatic efforts would continue but that they believed Russian President Vladmir Putin had already decided to invade.
The White House also said Biden had spoken with French President Emmanuel Macron and had abandoned a planned visit to Delaware and would instead remain in Washington overnight.
There was no official confirmation of a CNN report claiming that the United States had intelligence showing that orders have been sent to Russian tactical commanders and intelligence operatives to proceed with an attack on Ukraine.
Russian officials were also still transporting military vehicles and equipment toward Ukrainian territory on February 20 despite Moscow’s recent claim that it was removing some of the tens of thousands of Russian troops near Ukraine’s border, Current Time confirmed.
Macron and Putin spoke earlier in the day by telephone and reportedly highlighted contrasting views of the latest flareup in Ukraine, where an eight-year war with Russia-backed separatists has given way to intense fears of a major Russian invasion.
Western leaders say Russia has deployed upward of 150,000 troops near Ukraine and is planning a full-fledged attack against its neighbor. Moscow says it has no incursion plans.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported more than 1,500 cease-fire violations around the so-called “line of contact” in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian forces and the separatists on February 19.
Bombardments were also reported overnight, and RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service quoted Ukrainian military reports saying dozens of shots fired from the separatist side had wounded one serviceman.
Putin laid the blame on Kyiv, a French official said, echoing the tone of a Kremlin account of the conversation that cited alleged “provocations carried out by the Ukrainian security forces.”
But Macron blamed the separatists, according to the Elysee Palace.
An anonymous French presidential source was quoted by Reuters as saying Putin and Macron had agreed that there would be trilateral talks on February 21 between Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Those parties compose the so-called Trilateral Crisis Group formed to pursue a diplomatic path to peace since shortly after Ukraine’s war against Russia-backed separatists began in 2014.
After talking to Macron also on February 20, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called for a “regime of silence,” an “intensifying” of peace efforts, and an “immediate” meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group.
A Kremlin statement after the Macron-Putin conversation saying “the presidents believe it is important to intensify efforts to find solutions through diplomatic means” suggested such efforts should be carried out in the so-called Normandy format, which includes France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine.
Downing Street said late on February 20 that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had spoken with Macron, too.
It quoted Johnson warning that Putin “must step back” from threats and withdraw Russia’s troops from Ukraine’s border.
Johnson called Putin’s purported commitments to Macron a welcome sign that he might still be willing to engage diplomatically.
Elysee Palace said Macron also insisted that Russia remove an estimated 30,000 of its troops currently in neighboring Belarus, near the Ukrainian border, after ongoing joint military exercises are over.
The unnamed French official said Putin had assured Macron that they would.
Belarus’s defense minister extended the exercises, which were supposed to conclude on February 20.
Meanwhile, in the early evening of February 20, a Current Time correspondent recorded video of a train carrying military vehicles and equipment in Temryuk, a district in the Krasnodar region that abuts Ukraine, toward Crimea, which Russia invaded and annexed from Kyiv in 2014.
Late on February 20, images from commercial satellite company Maxar reportedly showed multiple new field deployments of armored equipment and troops northwest of Belgorod and near Sologi and Valuyki, in western Russia.
Maxar said the new activity represented a change from previously observed deployments of Russian battle groups, according to Reuters.
Speaking near the close of the Munich Security Conference on February 20, European Council President Charles Michel said, “The big question remains: Does the Kremlin want dialogue?”
He warned that “We cannot forever offer an olive branch while Russia conducts missile tests and continues to amass troops.”
Macron went to Moscow two weeks ago to persuade Putin to refrain from sending troops massed on the border into Ukraine.
The February 20 phone call was among “the final possible and necessary efforts to avoid a major conflict in Ukraine,” the Elysee Palace said.
After the Macron-Putin phone call, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would hold a phone call with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, on February 21.
Biden said on February 18 that he was “convinced” Russia would invade in the coming days, and was said to be convening a National Security Council meeting over the crisis on February 20.