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Biden warns Putin of 'decisive' response if Russia invades Ukraine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden talked on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin today. After the call, the White House said Biden warned Putin that if Russia attacks Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies would respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs on Russia. Earlier, in a sign that American officials are increasingly concerned that a Russian attack on Ukraine could be imminent, the State Department ordered most of its staff to leave the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

Joining us now for more on these developments is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Welcome, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.

MARTIN: We're also joined by NPR's Frank Langfitt, who is in southern Ukraine right now. Welcome to you as well, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So Franco, let me start with you. Can you tell us any more about the president's call today with President Putin?

ORDOÑEZ: Yes. It was just an over an hour-long call. President Biden told Putin that a Russian invasion would, quote, "produce widespread human suffering and diminish Russia's standing," according to a readout. He told Putin also that the United States remains prepared to engage in diplomacy but that it was prepared for the alternative. A senior administration official described the call afterward as both professional and substantive.

That official would not give specifics on any proposals that Biden offered as, you know, kind of an off-ramp for Russia. But he said that the dynamics of the crisis have not changed and that it was unclear whether Russia is interested in pursuing its goals diplomatically or through the use of force. He did say the two leaders agreed to have their teams stay engaged in the days ahead but also that Russia may just decide to proceed with military action anyway.

MARTIN: So let me turn to Frank in Ukraine now. Frank, you're in the southern part of the country, where I understand that you got to see President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. What does he have to say about all this?

LANGFITT: Yeah, I did. I was near the border with Crimea in a small town called Kalinchowk, and he was there. The president was there watching drills involving police, National Guard, Border Patrol trying to prevent Russian sabotage. And the president says his intelligence is different than the Americans and that he doesn't really see the threat of a large invasion, which some have suggested. And at least some Ukrainians seem to agree with him on this, maybe quite a few. And when he was standing in front of reporters on the street after the training exercise, he said this.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) So far, there's no full-scale war in Ukraine. Thank God. I don't think that our intelligence is worse than intelligence from other countries. We're analyzing the information which we're getting from you.

MARTIN: So Frank, can you just describe the scene where you are? What's going on there?

LANGFITT: It was really interesting. We were not very far from the Crimean border, and these were drills to prevent Russian-driven attacks. And one was a scenario in which officials said they think there could be a potential Russian attack to blow up a dam. And the reason for that is Crimea to the South, which is Russian occupied, used to get most of its water from Ukraine, and that's been cut off. Of course, they call this a potential plot. It could, of course, also be catastrophic. And then there was another scenario where the president came to, and you can hear this a little bit from what we recorded.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Right, left. Right, left. Right, left. Right, left. Right, left.

LANGFITT: Yeah, the drills were really quite something to watch. They were designed to prevent Russian-driven attacks. And this was one where there were a bunch of protesters the government sees as potentially instigated by Russian sympathizers taking over government buildings at a police station. Now, in the end, the police, the National Guard, they come in with armored vehicles, helicopters and they foil the plot to put down this uprising. And what analysts here talk about is beyond the invasion that is getting the most, of course, attention in the West, there's a lot of concern here about hybrid warfare, in which the Russians could try to use attacks like this in small areas where they would spread fear and destabilize the government.

MARTIN: I just want to emphasize again, if you just heard that, that that was a drill that Frank was recording. That was a drill. So I just want to be clear about that. So Frank, before we turn to Franco again, did you get a chance to speak to people in town? What are they saying?

LANGFITT: Yeah, it was very striking - no sign of preparation for any invasion. Most people said they were not moving. Most didn't seem to believe that it would happen. There was one young man, a student named Ivan Levitsky (ph). He wants to study IT in university - very nice fellow. And he did - he was very candid. He said he is really quite scared. He's thinking of maybe going to Kyiv. Of course, Kyiv could be a target if there is an invasion. And he has a family member in Germany he might go to try see.

But, you know, the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, they've all, as we've been talking about, have asked their citizens to leave. And in Kyiv, there are some expatriates that I know and others that are planning to go. Some might fly out, and in other cases, they might move near the Polish border or move out of town to the countryside, where they think that will be much safer.

MARTIN: OK. Let me turn back to Franco here in Washington, D.C. Franco, yesterday, the White House urged Americans in Ukraine to get out, and they've been saying this for a while now. Was there something different about yesterday's message?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It's just gotten a lot more urgent. National security adviser Jake Sullivan, you know, urged Americans to leave Ukraine in the next 24 to 48 hours. And the White House has really not given such a short window before, and Sullivan warned those who stay are really risking their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE SULLIVAN: If you stay, you are assuming risk with no guarantee that there will be any other opportunity to leave and there - no prospect of a U.S. military evacuation in the event of a Russian invasion.

ORDOÑEZ: And he said that the president will not be putting the lives of American soldiers at risk by sending them into a war zone to rescue people who could leave now.

MARTIN: So Franco, before we let you go, what are the other steps the Biden administration is taking to show that it thinks that this is imminent?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, there are a few things. At the same time that Biden is looking for this diplomatic solution, the United States is pulling, as you noted, most of its diplomats out of Kyiv. And the Pentagon announced today that 160 National Guard troops from Florida who have been in Ukraine training are also going to leave. And to be clear, the administration is not saying a military conflict will definitely happen. But a senior State Department official said today that it does appear increasingly likely that that is where the situation is heading.

MARTIN: We heard there from NPR's Franco Ordoñez in Washington, D.C., and Frank Langfitt in southern Ukraine. Thank you both so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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