Russia stated Tuesday that certain units involved in military drills would be returning to bases. It added to the hope that Russia might not be preparing to invade Ukraine soon, although it didn’t give details.
The announcement 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—changing the tenor after weeks of rising tensions. Western officials warned of an invasion at any hour and indicated that some troops and military hardware were moving towards the border. This muddled the picture.
It wasn’t immediately clear where exactly the troops that the Russian Defense Ministry said were pulling back were deployed or how many were leaving, making it hard to understand the significance. The announcement pushed world markets and the ruble up, but Ukraine’s leaders expressed skepticism.
“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.”
Russia has deployed more than 130,000 soldiers near Ukraine. It is raising fears that Russia will invade. Russia denies it has any plans to invade Ukraine, despite placing troops on Ukraine’s borders to the north, south and east and launching massive military drills nearby.
There was an explosion of diplomacy that accompanied the renewed glimmers and hope. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz planned to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, a day after he sat down with Ukraine’s leader in Kyiv. Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau of Poland, one of Russia’s most strident European critics, was also in Moscow on Tuesday to meet Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, while Ukraine’s foreign minister hosted his Italian counterpart.
Lavrov’s comments came at a made-for-TV meeting with Putin and 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.
The talks “can’t go on indefinitely, but I would suggest to continue and expand them at this stage,” Lavrov said, noting that Washington has offered to discuss limits for missile deployments in Europe, restrictions on military drills and other confidence-building measures.
Moscow seeks assurances that NATO won’t allow Ukraine and former Soviet states to join its ranks. Russia also requests that the NATO alliance stop weapons delivery to Ukraine, and reduce its presence in Eastern Europe.
Lavrov said possibilities for talks “are far from being exhausted.”
Putin noted that the West could try to draw Russia into “endless talks” and questioned whether there is still a chance to reach agreement. Lavrov replied that his ministry would not allow the U.S. and its allies to stonewall Russia’s main requests.
Reacting coolly, the U.S.
“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.”
One possible off-ramp emerged this week: Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.K., Vadym Prystaiko, pointed at a possibility of Ukraine shelving its NATO bid — an objective that is written into its constitution — if it would avert war with Russia.
Prystaiko later seemed to abandon the idea. However, the fact it was brought up suggests that this is something being done behind closed doors.
The U.S., European and other countries continued to issue warnings despite all the promising signs.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss reiterated Tuesday that the danger of an invasion still exists, telling Sky News that it “could be imminent.” But she added that “there is still time for Vladimir Putin to step away from the brink.”
Anniken Huitfeldt (Norwegian Foreign Minister) issued a similar warning.
U.S. officials have said the Russian military continued apparent attack preparations along Ukraine’s borders. An American defense official stated that small numbers have moved out of large assembly areas over the past few days to take up positions close to Ukraine’s border. This would serve as departure points for Putin’s invasion.
To discuss confidential information, the official spoke only under condition of anonymity. CBS News reported the first time about the movement.
Maxar Technologies is a commercial satellite imaging company. It has reported an increase in Russian military activity, which includes the arrival of fighter-bomber and ground-attack planes to forward areas. Over a period of 48 hours, photos show the ground forces abandoning their garrisons as well as combat units moving into convoy formation.
Still, Ukrainian security and defense council chief Oleksiy Danilov downplayed the threat of invasion but warned of the risk of “internal destabilization” by unspecified forces.
“Today we do not see that a large-scale offensive by the Russian Federation can take place either on (Feb.) 16th or the 17th,” he told reporters. “We are aware of the risks that exist in the territory of our country. But the situation is absolutely under control.”
As if to show defiance, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Wednesday would be a “day of national unity,” calling on the country to display the blue-and-yellow flag and sing the national anthem in the face of “hybrid threats.”
“It is not the first threat the strong Ukrainian people have faced,” Zelenskyy said Monday evening in a video address to the nation. “We’re calm. We’re strong. We’re together.”
However, the country is still preparing. Kyiv residents received letters from the mayor urging them “to defend your city,” and signs appeared in apartment buildings indicating the nearest bomb shelter. According to the mayor, there are approximately 4,500 sites like underground parking garages and subway stations.
Dr. Tamara Ugrich explained that she bought grains, canned food, and made an emergency kit.
“I don’t believe in war, but on TV the tension is growing every day, and it’s getting harder and harder to keep calm,” she said. “The more we are told not to panic, the more nervous people become.”
— Karmanau reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. This report was contributed by Robert Burns, Washington, Robert Burns, Jan M. Olsen, Washington, Sylvie Corbet, Angela Charlton, Sylvie Moulson, Jill Lawless, Jill Lawless, Jill Lawless, Jill Lawless, Geir Molson, in Berlin and Jan M. Olsen, all Associated Press journalists.