Russia said Wednesday it was returning more troops and weapons to bases, yet another gesture apparently aimed at easing fears it is planning to invade Ukraine again, even as the U.S. said the threat of an attack remained.
Russia has massed about 150,000 troops east, north and south of Ukraine, sparking Western concerns it was planning an assault. There have been no indications of a significant withdrawal of those forces, but this week has seen a handful of gestures from Moscow that offered hope that Europe might avoid war following weeks of escalating East-West tensions.
On Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry 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. It said the movement was part of a return of forces to their permanent bases.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg threw cold water on those statements, saying the military organization does not see any sign that Moscow is decreasing its troop levels in and 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 to withdraw forces, that’s something we will welcome but that remains to be seen.”
Ukraine’s military agrees with that assessment.
“There is not yet significant changes in strength of Russian troops around and in Ukraine,” a Ukrainian military official told Military Times Wednesday morning. “We hope in couple days it is going to change.”
A Pentagon official declined to provide Military Times updated statistics on Russian troop number early Wednesday morning.
Countries in the alliance have also expressed doubt, as have leaders in Ukraine. Caught between Russia and the West, Ukrainian leaders have repeatedly sought to project calm but also strength during the crisis.
In a show of resolve, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared Wednesday — tipped by some officials as a possible start for an invasion — a “day of national unity.” To mark the day, demonstrators unfolded a 656-foot national flag at a sports arena in Kyiv.
“We are united by a desire to happily live in peace,” Zelenskyy said in a video address to the nation. “We can defend our home only if we stay united.”
The Russian military hasn’t given the number of troops or weapons being withdrawn and offered few other details. And while Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled he wants a diplomatic path out of the crisis, he hasn’t committed to a full withdrawal.
A day earlier, the ministry reported the start of a pullback of troops following military exercises near Ukraine. And Putin signaled he wanted a diplomatic path out of the crisis, emphasizing that he did not want war and would rely on negotiations to achieve his key goal of keeping Ukraine from joining NATO. Meanwhile, a cyberattack hit the websites of Ukrainian government agencies and major banks Tuesday, Ukrainian authorities said.
The attack, the latest of several hacking operations targeting Ukraine, came after weeks of escalating fears that Russia might invade its neighboring country. Russia sent signals Tuesday that it might be pulling back from the brink of an invasion, but Western powers demanded proof.
While the U.S. and its allies continued to express skepsticism about Russia’s intentions, the moves nonetheless changed the tenor amid the worst East-West security crisis since the Cold War.
Still, Putin did not commit to a full withdrawal, saying Russia’s next moves in the standoff will depend on how the situation evolves. The Russian military hasn’t given the number of troops or weapons being withdrawn and offered few other details.
President Joe Biden noted Tuesday that American officials had not verified Russia’s claim.
“Indeed, our analysts indicate that they remain very much in a threatening position,” Biden said in remarks at the White House. Still, he promised that the U.S. would give diplomacy “every chance.”
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace also said “it’s too soon to tell” whether the pullback is genuine, noting that the Russians “haven’t taken the foot of the gas.”
“I think what we haven’t seen is evidence of withdrawal that has been claimed by the Kremlin,” he told Sky News. “In fact we’ve seen continued buildup of things like field hospitals and strategic weapons systems. Until we see a proper de-escalation, I think we should all be cautious about the direction of travel from the Kremlin.”
On Wednesday, Russian fighter jets flew training missions over Belarus that neighbors Ukraine to the north and paratroopers held shooting drills at firing ranges there as part of massive war games that the West feared could be used as cover for an invasion of Ukraine.
Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei reaffirmed that all Russian troops will leave the country after the maneuvers wrap up Sunday.
Russia has denied having any invasion plans and has mocked Western warnings about an imminent invasion as “hysteria” and “madness.”
Asked by German daily Welt if Russia was going to attack Wednesday — named by Western officials as a possible invasion date — Russia’s ambassador to the European Union Vladimir Chizhov quipped: “Wars in Europe rarely start on a Wednesday.”
“There won’t be an escalation next week either, on in the week after, or in the coming month,” he said.
Russia wants the West to keep Ukraine and other former Soviet nations out of NATO, halt weapons deployments near Russian borders and roll back forces from Eastern Europe. The U.S. and its allies have roundly rejected those demands, but they offered to engage in talks with Russia on ways to bolster security in Europe.
Speaking after meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin said Tuesday that the West agreed to discuss a ban on missile deployment to Europe, restrictions on military drills and other confidence-building measures — issues that Moscow put on the table years ago. He added that it would do so only in combination “with the main issues that are of primary importance for us.”
While Scholz reiterated that NATO’s eastward expansion “is not on the agenda — everyone knows that very well,” Putin retorted that Moscow will not be assuaged by such assurances.
“They are telling us it won’t happen tomorrow,” Putin said. “Well, when will it happen? The day after tomorrow? We want to solve this issue now as part of negotiation process through peaceful means.”
Scholz also said diplomatic options are “far from exhausted,” and praised the announcement of a troop withdrawal as a “good signal,” adding: “We hope that more will follow.”
But Ukrainian officials expressed skepticism, saying they want to see evidence of the Russian pullback and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that there have been no signs, so far, of a reduced military presence on Ukraine’s borders.
Ukrainian leaders have repeatedly sought to project calm but also strength during the crisis. In a show of resolve, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared Wednesday the “day of national unity,” calling on citizens to display the blue-and-yellow flag and sing the national anthem in the face of “hybrid threats.”
In Moscow, Russian lawmakers on Tuesday sent an appeal to Putin urging him to recognize rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine as independent states — where Russia has supported rebels in a conflict that has killed over 14,000 since 2014. Putin signaled that he wasn’t inclined to back the motion, which would effectively shatter a 2015 peace deal that was a diplomatic coup for Moscow.
Karmanau reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Dasha Litvinova in Moscow, Aamer Madhani in Washington, Angela Charlton in Paris, Jill Lawless in London, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Military Times senior managing editor Howard Altman contributed to this report.