Harris to meet Zelensky as Ukraine crisis overshadows Munich Security Conference

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US Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday on the sidelines of the annual Munich Security Conference as war fears mount a day after President Joe Biden said he was "convinced" Russia had made a decision to invade Ukraine.

Zelensky will attend the Munich Security Conference on Saturday and return home later the same day, according to a statement from his office.

The Ukrainian leader's trip had been under scrutiny due to concerns in some Western countries that Russia is poised to launch a military offensive against Ukraine and could do so while the president is out of the country.

Without referring to US President Joe Biden's questioning of whether it would be wise to leave Kyiv, the Ukrainian presidential office statement insisted that the situation in the country's east "remains under full control".

At the Munich conference, Harris is set to deliver a highly anticipated address warning Russia that an invasion would likely lead to an even bigger NATO footprint on its doorstep and that it will face huge financial costs if it invades Ukraine, according to a senior US administration official who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity.

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EU chief slams Russia’s ‘blatant attempt’ to rewrite rules of global order

In her speech at the annual security conference on Saturday, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen lashed out at Moscow over its troop buildup on the Ukrainian border, accusing Russia of making a "blatant attempt to rewrite the rules of the international order".

"The world has been watching in disbelief as we face the largest build-up of troops on European soil since the darkest days of the Cold War, because the events of these days could reshape the entire international order," said von der Leyen.

Von der Leyen warned Moscow that its thinking from "a dark past" could cost Russia a prosperous future as she promised a “robust package” of financial and economic sanctions in case of any aggression.

'Our greatest strength is our unity'

The US vice president’s address at the annual conference on Saturday comes a day after Biden said he was “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had made the decision to invade.

"We have reason to believe the Russian forces are planning to and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week, in the coming days," Biden told reporters at the White House on Friday, adding that Kyiv would be a target.

Harris on Friday declared "our greatest strength is our unity” as she met with the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on the sidelines of the conference. The Baltic countries have requested the US increase its troop presence on the eastern edge of NATO. “This is a moment that has made that clear: that our unity is evidence and is a measure of our strength.”

In addition to talking to European allies and Americans at home, Harris has a message intended for Putin: Step back from the precipice of war or suffer the most severe sanctions ever levied against Russia. But as the brewing crisis gets more complicated by the day, Biden and other administration officials have offered increasingly dire warnings that the window for diplomacy is narrow.

In addition to her meeting with the Baltic leaders, the vice president on Friday met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, briefed a bipartisan group of US lawmakers attending the conference about the rapidly changing situation, and consulted with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was also in Munich.

After her speech, Harris is scheduled to meet Zelensky.

Biden on Friday demurred when he was asked about the wisdom of Zelensky leaving Ukraine to attend the Munich conference at a moment when the Biden administration warns an invasion could be coming any day.

“That’s a judgment for him to make,” Biden said of Zelensky.

High-stakes annual event

The Munich gathering has been used in recent years by both US and Russian leaders to deliver pivotal messages before an important audience.

Then-Vice President Mike Pence in 2019 pitched President Donald Trump’s “America First” worldview, receiving a tepid response from the mostly European crowd. Biden has addressed the conference as a private citizen, senator, vice president, and president.

At last year’s conference, held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic, new president Biden declared “America’s back” in an address that touched on economic and security concerns driven by adversaries Russia and China.

Fifteen years ago, Putin used his own Munich appearance to deliver a broadside against NATO, accusing the alliance of putting “its frontline forces on our borders". It's a message that Putin continues to press as he's encircled Ukraine with Russian forces as he demands the US and other NATO nations guarantee that Ukraine – long aspiring to be included in the alliance – will never be given entry.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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