MUNICH (AFP) - Germany on Friday (Feb 18) accused Russia of endangering Europe's security with demands that recall the Cold War, as Western leaders arrived for a Munich Security Conference set to be dominated by the Ukraine crisis.
Fears are growing in the West that Russia is on the verge of invading its neighbour, with the United States warning of a possible attack in the "coming days".
Ahead of the annual, three-day conference's opening ceremony, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Moscow needed to show "serious steps towards de-escalation".
"With an unprecedented deployment of troops on the border with Ukraine and Cold War demands, Russia is challenging fundamental principles of the European peace order," Ms Baerbock said in a statement.
Russian troops have all but encircled Ukraine during the Kremlin's stand-off with the West over the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's (Nato) expansion into eastern Europe.
Before travelling to Munich, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the United Nations to expect an offensive in the "coming days", likely preceded by a pretext to justify military action.
Some feared such a moment had arrived on Thursday, when a spike in shellings on the front line damaged an eastern Ukrainian kindergarten and Russian-backed separatists blamed Kyiv for escalating hostilities.
Russia has denied any invasion plans. But the Kremlin has also said it could be forced to respond militarily if Washington does not meet certain security demands.
Moscow has so far declined to attend the Munich gathering, but the US said Mr Blinken would meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov next week - provided no invasion had occurred before then.
"It is a loss that Russia is not taking advantage of this opportunity," Ms Baerbock said.
She added that the conference offered a chance "to discuss how we can still counter the logic of threats of violence and military escalation with the logic of dialogue".
Also travelling to Munich are US Vice-President Kamala Harris, UN chief Antonio Guterres, EU Commission head Ursula von der Leyen, Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven club of rich nations - including France, Britain, the US and Japan - will discuss the Ukraine crisis on the conference sidelines on Saturday.
The talks will be hosted by Ms Baerbock, whose country currently holds the G-7 presidency.
"Even tiny steps towards peace are better than big steps towards war. But we also need serious steps towards de-escalation from Russia," she said.
"Declarations of willingness to talk must be backed up by real offers to talk. Declarations of troop withdrawals must be backed up by verifiable troop withdrawals."
Moscow has made several announcements of troop withdrawals this week, but the US, Nato and Ukraine all said they had seen no evidence of a pullback.
Instead, Washington says Russia has moved 7,000 additional troops to near the Ukrainian border.
Citing "possible aggravation", Ukraine's armed forces announced late Thursday that evacuations were planned for some communities along the conflict-ridden border, particularly from the separatist-held city Donetsk.
Violence has ebbed and flowed along the eastern front line, where Kyiv has been locked in conflict with Moscow-backed rebels for almost eight years.
Following Thursday's artillery fire at the kindergarten, Ukrainian and Western leaders reiterated calls for Russia not to exploit the border tensions to launch its feared offensive.
President Vladimir Putin has made clear that the price for removing any threat would be Ukraine agreeing never to join Nato and for the Western alliance to pull back from a swath of eastern Europe, effectively splitting the continent into Cold War-style spheres of influence.
Ukraine is far from being ready to join Nato but has set this as part of a broader goal to integrate with the democracies of western Europe, making a historic break from Russia's orbit.