WORLD NEWS

Russia says some forces pulling back amid Ukraine crisis

Feb 15, 2022, 5:22 AM | Updated: Jun 13, 2022, 3:40 pm
A member of the Ukrainian State Border Guard stands watch at the border crossing between Ukraine an...
A member of the Ukrainian State Border Guard stands watch at the border crossing between Ukraine and Belarus on February 13, 2022 in Vilcha, Ukraine. Russian forces are conducting large-scale military exercises in Belarus, across Ukraine's northern border, amid a tense diplomatic standoff between Russia and Ukraine's Western allies. Ukraine has warned that it is virtually encircled, with Russian troops massed on its northern, eastern and southern borders. The United States and other NATO countries have issued urgent alerts about a potential Russian invasion, hoping to deter Vladimir Putin by exposing his plans, while trying to negotiate a diplomatic solution. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia said Tuesday that some units participating in military exercises would begin returning to their bases, adding to glimmers of hope that the Kremlin may not be planning to invade Ukraine imminently. But it gave no details on where the troops were pulling back from, or how many.

That muddied efforts to determine the significance of the announcement, which buoyed world financial markets and the long-suffering ruble after weeks of escalation in Europe’s worst East-West standoff in decades. It came a day after Russia’s foreign minister indicated the country was ready to keep talking about the security grievances that led to the Ukraine crisis — a gesture that changed the tenor after weeks of tensions.

Yet hours before the Russian Defense Ministry statement about the troops, a U.S. defense official said Russian units were moving closer to the Ukrainian border – not away from it. And Western officials continued to warn Tuesday that the Russian military could attack at any time, with some floating Wednesday as a possible invasion day.

The fears of an invasion grew from the fact that Russia has massed more than 130,000 troops near Ukraine. Russia denies it has any such plans, despite placing troops on Ukraine’s borders to the north, south and east and launching massive military drills nearby. U.S. and other NATO allies, meanwhile, have moved troops and military supplies toward Ukraine’s western flank, and promised more financial aid to the ex-Soviet nation.

In announcing the pullback, the Russian Defense Ministry did not indicate where the troops had been deployed or how many were leaving.

Asked about the announcement, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed that Russia holds military drills “on its own territory and according to its own plans, they start, go on and end as planned.” The minister said such drills always adhered to a schedule — regardless of “who thinks what and who gets hysterical about it, who is deploying real informational terrorism.”

Ukraine’s leaders expressed skepticism about the pullback.

“Russia constantly makes various statements,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. “That’s why we have the rule: We won’t believe when we hear, we’ll believe when we see. When we see troops pulling out, we’ll believe in de-escalation.”

European leaders have been scrambling to try to head off a new war on their continent, after several tense weeks that have left Europeans feeling caught between Russia and the U.S., and further pushed up household energy prices because of Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, a day after sitting down with Ukraine’s leader in Kyiv. In his opening remarks in the Kremlin, Scholz addressed the Ukraine tensions but also noted Germany’s economic ties with Russia — which complicate Western efforts to agree on how to punish Russia in case of an invasion.

Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau of Poland, one of Russia’s most strident European critics, met in Moscow on Tuesday with Lavrov, and they discussed ways to use the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for more talks aimed at easing tensions around Ukraine.

The day before, Lavrov suggested more efforts at diplomacy in a made-for-TV meeting with Putin that seemed designed to send a message to the world about the Russian leader’s position. The foreign minister argued that Moscow should hold more talks, despite the West’s refusal to consider Russia’s main demands.

Moscow wants guarantees that NATO will not allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members. It also wants the alliance to halt weapons deployments to Ukraine and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe.

Lavrov said possibilities for talks “are far from being exhausted.”

The U.S. reacted coolly.

“The path for diplomacy remains available if Russia chooses to engage constructively,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “However, we are clear-eyed about the prospects of that, given the steps Russia is taking on the ground in plain sight.”

Ukraine’s foreign minister, meanwhile, claimed credit for keeping the diplomatic path open —at least for now.

“We managed with our partners to restrain the Russian Federation from any further escalation. Today is already the middle of February and you can see that diplomacy continues to work,” Kuleba said.

As if to show defiance, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared Wednesday would be a “day of national unity,” calling on the country to display the blue-and-yellow flag and sing the national anthem.

Even amid the hopeful signs, the U.S. and European countries kept up their warnings.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss reiterated Tuesday that the danger of an invasion still exists, telling Sky News that it “could be imminent.” Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt issued a similar warning.

U.S. officials have said the Russian military continued apparent attack preparations along Ukraine’s borders. A U.S. defense official said small numbers of Russian ground units have been moving out of larger assembly areas for several days, taking up positions closer to the Ukrainian border at what would be departure points if Putin launched an invasion.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss information not publicly released.

Maxar Technologies, a commercial satellite imagery company that has been monitoring the Russian buildup, reported increased Russian military activity in Belarus, Crimea and western Russia, including the arrival of helicopters, ground-attack aircraft and fighter-bomber jets at forward locations. The photos taken over a 48-hour period also show ground forces leaving their garrisons and combat units moving into convoy formation.

Meanwhile, Russian lawmakers called on Putin on Tuesday to recognize rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine as independent states. The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, voted to submit an appeal to Putin to that effect.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the issue of recognizing the self-proclaimed republics is “very, very relevant to the public.” But it was unclear how he would respond or how this could influence Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

While the U.S. warns that Russia could invade Ukraine any day, and Kyiv is alerting residents to locate their nearest bomb shelters, the drumbeat of war is all but unheard in Russia itself.

The Kremlin has cast the U.S. warnings of an imminent attack as “hysteria” and “absurdity,” and many Russians believe that Washington is deliberately stoking panic and fomenting tensions to trigger a conflict for domestic reasons.

Few expect a war.

In Russia’s Belgorod region about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Ukraine’s border, residents carry on with life as usual, even as more military personnel have been passing through village streets.

“Planes, helicopters just started flying, I guess, to patrol the border,” said Vladimir Konovalenko.

Villager Lyudmila Nechvolod says she’s not worried.

“We are friends with Ukraine. And we are not sure that Ukraine wants war with us. … We are really on the border, we really have relatives here and there, everyone has somebody there (on the Ukrainian side),” she said. “No one wants war.”

___

Karmanau reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Angela Charlton in Paris, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Jill Lawless in London, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

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Russia says some forces pulling back amid Ukraine crisis