Russia moves to defuse Ukraine tensions, but the West is still skeptical

MOSCOW – Russia has made two decisions aimed at easing tensions around Ukraine – reporting a troop withdrawal near the neighboring country and welcoming talks with the West. However, the United States and its allies say they need evidence of troop movements and the threat of a Russian invasion remains.

On Monday and Tuesday, there were signs of hope that Europe could avoid war after weeks of escalating East-West tensions as Moscow concentrated some 150,000 troops on three sides of Ukraine and organized military operations. big exercise. Those moves have led to dire warnings from Washington, London and other European capitals that Russia is preparing to enter Ukraine.

But the term changed this week. President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday said Russia did not want war and would rely on negotiations in an attempt to eliminate any chance Ukraine might one day join NATO – his main need during the crisis. . At the same time, he did not commit to a full withdrawal, saying that Russia’s next moves in the stalemate will depend on how the situation develops.

Russia also offered some details about the pullback, and President Joe Biden said US officials have not verified the Russian claim. He promised that the United States would give diplomacy “every chance,” but he struck a tone of skepticism about Moscow’s intentions.

“Two paths remain open,” Biden said in remarks at the White House. “But leave no doubt: If Russia violates this by invading Ukraine, responsible nations around the world will not hesitate to respond. tomorrow.”

Even as hopes glimmer, Biden said 150,000 Russian troops are now concentrated near Ukraine and neighboring Belarus – up from a previous US estimate of 130,000.

Russia’s announcement that it pulled out “would be nice, but we haven’t verified that yet,” Biden said. “Indeed, our analysts indicate that they are still in a vulnerable position.”

Russia has denied any invasion plans. It wants the West to keep Ukraine and other former Soviet states that are not part of NATO, stop deploying weapons near Russia’s borders, and push back forces from Eastern Europe.

The United States and its allies have completely rejected those requests, but they have offered to engage in negotiations with Russia on ways to increase security in Europe.

Speaking after a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin said the West had agreed to discuss a ban on deploying missiles to Europe, limiting military exercises and other confidence-building measures. problems that Moscow posed many years ago.

He said Russia was open to discussing “some of those factors”, but added that it would only do so when combined “with key issues of prime importance to us.”

While Scholz reiterated that NATO’s eastward expansion was “not on the agenda – everyone knows that very well,” Putin countered that Moscow would not be given such a guarantee.

“They are telling us that it will not happen tomorrow,” Putin said. “Well, when will it happen? The day after tomorrow? What does it change for us from a historical standpoint? Nothing.”

Scholz also said diplomatic options were “far from exhausted” and he hailed the withdrawal announcement as a “good signal”, adding: “We hope that there will be more”.

The Russian Ministry of Defense has released images of tanks and tanks rolling on railway platforms and many other tanks rolling in snow fields. It did not disclose where or when the images were taken, or where the vehicles were headed, except “to regular deployment locations.”

Ukraine expressed skepticism.

“We won’t believe it when we hear it, we’ll believe it when we see it,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that so far there is no sign of a reduction in the military presence on the Ukrainian border.

Meanwhile, a series of cyberattacks took down the websites of the Ukrainian military, defense ministry and major banks. There’s no indication that relatively low-level denial-of-service attacks can serve as a smokescreen for more serious cyber fraud. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the United States had not yet determined who was behind the attacks.

Despite the worst East-West tensions in decades, few Russians expect a war. In a village in Russia’s Belgorod region, about 30 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, residents continued their lives as usual, even as many military personnel passed through the village roads.

“We are really on the border, we really have relatives here and there, everyone has someone” on the Ukrainian side, villager Lyudmila Nechvolod said. “Nobody wants war.”

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

Mr. Putin said the request reflects the sympathy of the Russian public for the suffering of those trapped in the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 14,000 people since 2014. However, he noted that Russia continues to believe that a 2015 peace agreement brokered by France and Germany will be implemented. as the primary means of resolving secessionist conflicts.


Karmanau reported from Kyiv, Ukraine and Madhani from Washington. Associated Press writers Dasha Litvinova in Moscow, Angela Charlton in Paris, Lorne Cook in Brussels, Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Jill Lawless in London, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark and Robert Burns, Matthew Lee and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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