Ukraine and US agree to continue both 'deterrence and diplomacy' against Russian threat

ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers reports from Kyiv as Ukraine's President continues talks with US President Joe Biden

The US and Ukraine have agreed to continue on a course of both deterrence and diplomacy to try to stave off a feared Russian military offensive.

On Sunday, the UK's defence secretary cut short a family holiday to respond to the crisis, as fears of an imminent incursion by Russian troops mount.

But following a phone call with US President Biden, Ukraine's president Zelenskyy insisted his people were under “safe and reliable protection,” playing down warnings that Russia could be planning to invade as soon as midweek.

Ukraine is now seeking a meeting with Russia within the next 48 hours for "transparency" about their intentions.

What came from the meeting between the two presidents - and why are the next 48 hours so significant? ITV News Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo explains

Tensions in the region continue to heighten, however, with some airlines cancelling flights to Kyiv and troops there unloading fresh shipments of weapons from NATO members.President Biden spoke for about 50 minutes with his Ukrainian counterpart and renewed promises of what the West says will be tough economic sanctions against Moscow and a NATO buildup in the event of “any further Russian aggression” against Ukraine.

Moscow’s forces are massing on Ukraine’s north, east and south in what the Kremlin insists are military exercises.

Intelligence suggests the number of Russian forces now staged near Ukraine's borders is up to more than 130,000.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy works in his office in Kyiv on Sunday. Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

Why has the Defence Minister returned home?

Ben Wallace said on Sunday morning that "the worsening situation in Ukraine" was the reason behind cancelling his "long weekend abroad".

The announcement of his return followed the Ministry of Defence being approached for comment after the cabinet minister was spotted at a European resort by an ITV News journalist.

Mr Wallace's decision to leave his holiday early is markedly different from the one made by Dominic Raab, who, as foreign secretary, stayed on a family holiday in Crete as the Taliban were marching back to power in Afghanistan.

Mr Raab received fierce criticism for that choice.

Mr Wallace had earlier compared diplomatic efforts to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine to appeasement, saying it is “highly likely” Vladimir Putin will order an attack despite concerted efforts to avert war.

In a Sunday Times interview, Mr Wallace said there is a “whiff of Munich in the air”, in an apparent reference to the agreement that allowed German annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 but failed to prevent the Second World War.

What exactly does the defence secretary mean by 'a whiff of Munich in the air'? ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen explains

He warned that Moscow could “launch an offensive at any time”, with an estimated 130,000 Russian troops and heavy firepower amassed along Ukraine’s border.

“It may be that he (Putin) just switches off his tanks and we all go home but there is a whiff of Munich in the air from some in the West,” he added.

Can Russia come 'back from the brink'?

Talks have been taking place for weeks in an attempt to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Boris Johnson plans to hold further talks with world leaders in the coming week.

The Prime Minister is understood to be receiving daily intelligence briefings from security chiefs on the increasing build-up of Russian forces and will travel to Europe towards the end of the week.

A Downing Street spokeswoman on Sunday night said: "The crisis on Ukraine’s border has reached a critical juncture. All the information we have suggests Russia could be planning an invasion of Ukraine at any moment. This would have disastrous consequences for both Ukraine and Russia.

"There is still a window of opportunity for de-escalation and diplomacy, and the Prime Minister will continue to work tirelessly alongside our allies to get Russia to step back from the brink."

Boris Johnson meeting Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv earlier this month Credit: Peter Nicholls/PA

Mr Wallace also flew to Moscow last week as part of a frantic spell of diplomacy as security fears heightened after Russia started huge military drills with neighbouring Belarus.

In talks with his counterpart in Russia, Sergei Shogiu, he warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would have "tragic consequences" for both countries.

A source explained that Mr Wallace’s concerns that if Mr Putin strikes “come what may, then all the diplomacy would have been a straw man”.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, meanwhile, has said the West must realise Russia could “move very quick” despite ongoing diplomatic efforts to prevent an invasion of Ukraine.

Is a Russian invasion imminent?

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the White House of stoking “hysteria” with talk of an invasion within the week.

Ukraine's ambassador to the UK Vadym Prystaiko warned that the panic being caused by the West sounding the alarm could be playing into Putin’s hands.

“It’s not the best time for us to offend our partners in the world, reminding them of this act which actually not bought peace but the opposite, it bought war,” the diplomat told BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme.

“There’s panic everywhere not just in people’s minds but in financial markets as well,” he added, warning it is “hurting the Ukrainian economy on sort of the same level as people leaving the embassy”.

'Leave now while commercial means are still available'

UK nationals in Ukraine are, however, being urged by the Foreign Office to “leave now while commercial means are still available”.

Already  some airlines are cancelling or diverting flights from Ukraine as the crisis builds.

Armed Forces minister James Heappey warned Russia is in a position to be able to attack “very, very quickly”, with an estimated 130,000 troops on Ukraine’s border.

But unlike when the Taliban seized Kabul, Mr Heappey stressed that the RAF would not be carrying out evacuations in the event of war in Ukraine.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she discussed her “acute concerns” that Russia “may launch further military aggression against Ukraine in coming days” during a call on Saturday with US secretary of state Antony Blinken.

“We agree Russia will face massive consequences for any invasion, including severe sanctions,” she said.

After UK nationals in Ukraine, thought to number in the low thousands, were ordered to leave on Friday night, passengers arrived on a flight to Gatwick Airport from Kyiv on Saturday afternoon.

Among them was 21-year-old Haider Ali from Birmingham, who said the warning had “caused quite a panic” with his fellow students at the Dnipro Medical Institute.

British ambassador to Ukraine Melinda Simmons was remaining with a “core team” in Kyiv, but some embassy staff and their families were being withdrawn.