Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky slammed concerns of the US and its NATO allies about a Russian invasion Friday, accusing them of creating a “panic” and insisting that he knows the situation in his own country.
“Do we have tanks on the streets?” Zelensky asked reporters during a news conference. “No. When you read media, you get the image that we have troops in the city, people fleeing … That’s not the case.”
Though Zelensky declined to rule out the possibility of conflict, he denied the repeated suggestion by Washington that a Russian attack may be “imminent.”
“I’m the president of Ukraine and I’m based here and I think I know the details better here,” he said at one point.
The news conference came one day after Zelensky spoke on the phone with President Biden. Following the call, CNN cited an unnamed Ukrainian official in reporting that Biden had told Zelensky that a Russian invasion of Kiev was almost certain.
The White House hastily denied the report, calling it “completely false.”
“President Biden said that there is a distinct possibility that the Russians could invade Ukraine in February,” National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne tweeted, later adding that “[r]eports of anything more or different than that are completely false.”
Zelensky later described the discussion with Biden as positive, saying they talked about “recent diplomatic efforts on de-escalation and agreed on joint actions for the future.”
A formal transcript of the call has not been released.
While Ukraine’s government has repeatedly pushed a message of calm in recent weeks, the Biden administration has repeatedly used the words “imminent” or “could be imminent” to describe the possibility of war.
When pressed on whether such language could cause undue panic in Ukraine, State Department spokesperson Ned Price defended the White House’s word choice.
“I do not think us voicing our concerns regarding what Moscow may well have in store is bringing us any closer to conflicts,” he said during a Thursday briefing. “The only thing that is bringing us closer to conflict are moves and the measures that we have seen from the Russian Federation.”
Moscow has massed at least 100,000 forces along the border of Ukraine and Russian forces have been seen in recent days transporting military equipment into Belarus — stoking fears of an invasion from the north.
Still, Zelensky said Friday he was confident that the threat is not as severe as some are making it out to be.
“If you only look at the satellites, you will see the increase of troops. You can’t assess whether this is a threat, an attack or a simple rotation,” he said. Zelensky later added that Ukraine’s government trusts its army and denied the country was “weaker” than NATO.
The US and several NATO allies have vowed to hit Russia with severe economic sanctions if Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to invade his western neighbor – which he wishes to block from joining NATO.
Republicans in Congress attempted to push through a bill earlier this month that would have slapped sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline regardless of whether an invasion happens, but the measure failed to garner enough votes.
Zelensky also blasted the West’s timeline for potential sanctions, saying Friday, “If there’s a full-scale war tomorrow, why do we need sanctions afterwards? I don’t think it’s fair.”
While the US has provided Ukraine with millions of dollars of military assistance and vowed to provide troops to NATO’s Response Force in the event of an invasion, Zelensky insisted that Biden does not owe Ukraine anything.
While Russia has repeatedly denied any intent to invade Ukraine, likening concerns to “hysteria,” evidence that Moscow is behind efforts to destabilize the Kiev government continues to mount.
On Friday, Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) said it had uncovered and arrested a Russian agent in Kiev who was collecting information about servicemen in Ukraine’s security forces.
The agent — a citizen of Ukraine — was recruited by the “State Security Committee of the DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic],” which is controlled by Russian special services, according to Ukrainian officials.
“On behalf of the curators, the agent collected information about servicemen of the security forces of Ukraine, including the SBU,” the SBU said in a statement. “Among other things, they were interested in counterintelligence measures to counter Russian intelligence.”
Earlier this month, the White House also alleged Russia may stage a “false flag” attack on its own forces to provide a justification for war.