Russia said Wednesday it would return more troops and weapons to bases, but NATO said it saw no sign of withdrawing due to fears that Moscow might invade Ukraine. Soon it continued.
Russia massed some 150,000 troops in eastern, northern and southern Ukraine, raising fears in the West that an attack was planned. Moscow denies it has any such plans, and this week said it was withdrawing some troops and weapons, but gave few details. These claims were met with skepticism from the United States and its allies — even as they appeared to have lowered the temperature after weeks of escalating tensions between East and West.
The Russian Defense Ministry on Wednesday released a video showing a trainload of armored vehicles moving across a bridge away from Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. A day earlier, the ministry announced the start of troop withdrawal. After military exercises near Ukraine.
But NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg threw cold water on those remarks, saying the military organization saw no indication that Moscow would reduce its troop levels around Ukraine.
“At the moment, we have not seen any withdrawal of Russian forces,” he said before chairing a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.
“If they really start withdrawing troops, that would be a welcome thing but that’s not clear yet.”
Countries in the alliance have also expressed skepticism, as have leaders in Ukraine. Trapped between Russia and the West, Ukrainian leaders have repeatedly sought to display calm but also strength during the crisis.
In a show of determination, President Volodymyr Zelensky declared Wednesday — which some officials have referred to as a possible beginning of an invasion — “National Unity Day.” To celebrate the day, protesters raised a 200-meter (656-foot) national flag at a sports arena in Kiev.
“We are united by the desire to live happily in peace,” Zelensky said in a speech to the nation. “We can only defend our homeland if we remain united.”
The Russian military did not say how many troops or weapons are being withdrawn and gave few other details. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated he wants a diplomatic path out of the crisis, he has not committed to a full withdrawal.
Putin emphasized that he does not want war and will rely on negotiations to achieve his main goal of preventing Ukraine from joining NATO.
While these comments seemed to change the substance, Western leaders insisted that the crisis was far from over. President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that US officials had not verified Russia’s claims, and British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace also said it was “too early to know” whether the withdrawal was real, noting that the Russians “did not take steps with gas.”
“I think what we haven’t seen is evidence of the withdrawal announced by the Kremlin,” Wallace told Sky News. “In fact, we have seen a continuous build-up of things like field hospitals and strategic weapons systems. Until we see a proper de-escalation, I think we should all be careful about the direction of travel from the Kremlin.”
On Wednesday, Russian fighter jets flew training missions over Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north, and paratroopers conducted shooting exercises at firing ranges there as part of massive war games that the West fears will be used as a cover for an invasion of Ukraine.
Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei reiterated that all Russian forces and weapons will leave the country after the exercise ends on Sunday.
Russia denied any plans to invade and scoffed at Western warnings About an imminent invasion as “paranoia” and “madness”.
Asked by German daily Welt whether Russia would attack Wednesday, Russia’s ambassador to the European Union Vladimir Chizhov said sarcastically: “Wars in Europe rarely start on Wednesday.”
“There will be no escalation next week, either in the next week or in the next month,” he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also ironically referred to the warnings of Wednesday’s invasion, saying that Russian officials slept well that night.
Russia wants the West to keep Ukraine and other former Soviet states out of NATO, stop deploying weapons near Russia’s borders and push back forces from Eastern Europe. The United States and its allies vehemently rejected these demands, but offered to enter into talks with Russia about ways to enhance security in Europe.
Speaking after meeting German Chancellor Olaf Schulz, Putin said on Tuesday that the West had agreed to discuss a ban on missile deployments in Europe, restrictions on military exercises and other confidence-building measures — issues that Moscow has been on the table for years. He added that Russia is ready to discuss these issues, but only in conjunction with “the main issues of fundamental importance to us.”
While Schultz reiterated that NATO’s eastward expansion “is not on the agenda – and everyone knows that,” Putin replied that Moscow would not be lulled by such assurances.
“They tell us it won’t happen tomorrow,” Putin said. “Well, when will that happen? The day after tomorrow? We want to solve this problem now as part of the negotiation process by peaceful means.”
On Tuesday, a series of cyberattacks crashed the websites of Ukraine’s military, defense ministry and major banks, and Serhiy Demidyuk, the second official at Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, blamed Russia.
In Moscow, Russian lawmakers on Tuesday sent an appeal to Putin urging him to recognize rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine as independent states — where Russia has backed rebels in a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people since 2014. Putin has indicated it is not. He tends to support the proposal, which would effectively spoil the 2015 peace deal that amounted to a diplomatic coup for Moscow.
More AP coverage of the Ukraine crisis: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Kermano reports from Kiev, Ukraine, and Cook from Brussels. Dasha Litvinova in Moscow, Amir Madani in Washington, Angela Charlton in Paris, Jill Lawless in London and Frank Jordan in Berlin contributed to this report.
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