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German chancellor warns of far-reaching sanctions if Russia moves on Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, speaks to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during their meeting at The Mariinskyi Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday. Scholz visited Ukraine as part of a flurry of Western diplomacy aimed at heading off a feared Russian invasion that some warn could be just days away.
AP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, speaks to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during their meeting at The Mariinskyi Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday. Scholz visited Ukraine as part of a flurry of Western diplomacy aimed at heading off a feared Russian invasion that some warn could be just days away.

Updated February 14, 2022 at 9:58 PM ET

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Monday, pledging solidarity with that country amid fears of a Russian invasion.

Speaking at a news conference with his counterpart, Scholz said Ukraine's sovereignty is non-negotiable, adding that he expects Russia to take clear steps to deescalate tensions.

Scholz also issued a threat of "far-reaching sanctions" if Moscow sends troops over the border. However, he didn't provide specific details on what those might be.

But the German leader has refused Ukraine's repeated pleas to send military aid and weapons as the United States and Britain have done, saying Germany has a longstanding policy of not sending that type of help to conflict zones.

Instead, Scholz stressed Germany's role as the largest source of financial aid to Ukraine, making a new pledge to extend 150 million euros to Kyiv.

Ukraine responds to reports of an imminent attack

After the meeting, Zelenskyy said the two nations "share the common vision that the escalation on the Ukrainian-Russian border is an unprecedented challenge for Europe and the world."

And in a news conference alongside Scholz, Zelenskyy suggested the possibility of dropping Ukraine's goal of NATO membership — an issue at the heart of the conflict with Russia. It is a major reversal for Zelenskyy, who as recently as Sunday said he would continue to pursue joining the international alliance, regardless of Russian threats and skepticism among western countries.

"Maybe the question of open doors is for us like a dream," Zelenskyy said on Monday.

He added: "How much should Ukraine go on that path? ... Who will support us?"

Zelenskyy also responded to U.S. reports that Russia could be planning to launch an attack on Wednesday, according to the BBC.

"We are being threatened with a big war and the date of the military invasion is set again," he said in a statement, according to the BBC.

The leader praised the strength of his own country and proclaimed "our state today is stronger than ever."

"We want peace and we want to resolve all issues exclusively through negotiations," Zelenskyy reportedly said, predicting that the violence in Donbas and Crimea would soon end. Both regions, he said, would return to Ukrainian control through diplomatic means.

Wednesday would not be a day of war but rather a day of unity, he added.

Russian leaders say there's no intent to invade

Meanwhile, Russia denies plans to invade its neighbor, despite massing 100,000 soldiers on Ukraine's borders and another 30,000 soldiers near the Belarus-Ukraine border. The explanation it has offered the world is that it is merely conducting military exercises.

The Kremlin last week said its forces along the Belarus border would eventually return back to home bases in Russia but officials did not provide a timeframe for the withdrawal.

The White House says the operation is yet another escalation of tensions along the Ukraine border.

U.S. President Joe Biden and other Western leaders, including European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, have warned Russia that if it sends its forces into Ukraine, as it did in 2014, they will prevent the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from coming online. That pipeline would transport gas from Russia to Germany — Europe's longtime economic engine.

Scholz is planning on flying to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.

The leader's attempts to diffuse tensions and find a peaceful resolution, comes as several nations, including Germany, Australia, Israel, Japan and South Korea, are telling their citizens to evacuate from Ukraine.

On Monday, the U.S. State Department announced it is in the process of temporarily relocating its embassy operations from Kyiv to Lviv "due to the dramatic acceleration in the buildup of Russian forces."

"The Embassy will remain engaged with the Ukrainian government, coordinating diplomatic engagement in Ukraine. We are also continuing our intensive diplomatic efforts to deescalate the crisis," officials said in a statement.

The families of embassy staff were ordered to leave Ukraine on Jan. 23. On Monday evening, the State Department also told all U.S. citizens to depart Belarus, in part over Russia's military buildup.

Following a call with Zelenskyy on Sunday, the White House issued a statement saying "President Biden made clear that the United States would respond swiftly and decisively, together with its Allies and partners, to any further Russian aggression against Ukraine."

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
Peter Granitz