- Russia says some troops are withdrawing after build-up near Ukraine
- West reacts with caution and skepticism
- Putin receives German Scholz in Kremlin
MOSCOW: Russia said on Tuesday some of its troops were returning to base after exercises near Ukraine and mocked Western warnings of an imminent invasion, but NATO and the United States said they had not yet seen any evidence of the escalation that could avert war.
President Vladimir Putin said Russia is ready to continue talking to the West about security issues, but would not be satisfied with vague talk that Ukraine would not be ready to join NATO anytime soon.
The military announcement was the first sign from Moscow that it could be ready to reverse the build-up of some 130,000 troops near the border with Ukraine, sparking one of the deepest crises in the East-West. relations since the Cold War.
Tensions remained high, but German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, after meeting Putin in the Kremlin, said the withdrawal of some Russian troops was a good sign.
Moscow did not say how many units were withdrawn and how far. The US ambassador to the United Nations said Washington has yet to see evidence of any setbacks.
Ukraine said the reported relapse has to be seen to be believed. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “the information we see today is still not encouraging”.
Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security said the country’s defense ministry and banks Privatbank and Oshadbank had come under cyber-attacks.
“It cannot be ruled out that the aggressor used tactics of small dirty tricks because his aggressive plans did not pan out on a large scale,” the center said, without specifying who the aggressor was.
The NATO chief welcomed signals from Russia over the past two days that it may be looking for a diplomatic solution, but urged Moscow to show its will to act.
“There are signs from Moscow that diplomacy should continue. This gives cause for cautious optimism. But so far we have not seen any sign of de-escalation on the ground from the Russian side,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg against reporters.
He said Russia often left military equipment behind after exercises, allowing troops to regroup.
At a joint press conference with Scholz, Putin only briefly referred to the troop movements and did not go into details.
Russia has always denied that it plans to invade Ukraine and says it can deploy troops on its own territory as it sees fit. It has pushed for a series of security guarantees from the West, including a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO.
Putin told reporters that Russia would not settle for talk that the former Soviet republic was not ready to join any time soon and demanded that the issue be resolved now.
“As for war in Europe… whether we want it or not? Of course not. That is why we have put forward proposals for a negotiation process, resulting in an agreement on ensuring equal security for all, including our country,” he said.
Scholz said diplomatic options were far from exhausted.
“For us Germans, but also for Europeans, lasting security can only be achieved … with Russia. Therefore, it must be possible to find a solution. However difficult and serious the situation may seem, I refuse to say that it hopeless,” he said.
In a separate development, Russia’s lower house voted to ask Putin to recognize two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent.
Recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics could spell the death of the Minsk peace process in eastern Ukraine, where a conflict between government forces and Moscow-backed separatists has killed 15,000.
Asked about the move, Putin said the regions’ problems should be resolved on the basis of the Minsk agreements, which were signed in 2014 and 2015 but never implemented. Scholz said all parties must abide by those agreements.
‘May be imminent’
Russia’s display of power near Ukraine’s borders has sparked months of frantic Western diplomacy and threats of severe sanctions if it invades, culminating in a crescendo of US and British warnings in recent days that it could happen at any moment.
The Kremlin tried to portray his moves as evidence that Western war talk had been both false and hysterical.
“February 15, 2022 will go down in history as the day when Western war propaganda failed. Humiliated and destroyed without firing a single shot,” said Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Russian Defense Ministry has released images showing tanks and other armored vehicles being loaded onto flat railcars. But Western military analysts said they needed more information to assess the significance of the latest troop movements.
Konrad Muzyka, director of the Poland-based Rochan consultancy, told Reuters it would take several days to verify the latest moves via satellite imagery.
“It should also be noted that new trains carrying equipment from Central Russia are constantly arriving near the border and Russian troops continue to move towards the depots,” he said.
Commercial satellite images taken on Sunday and Monday showed a flurry of Russian military activity in several locations near Ukraine, including large deployments of troops and helicopter gunships, and warplanes moving forward.
Russian equities, government bonds and the ruble, hit by fears of an impending conflict, rose sharply as the situation appeared to be easing somewhat, and Ukrainian government bonds rose. Oil fell more than 3% from its seven-year high reached Monday.