Russia Says Some Troops Withdrawing From Ukrainian Border; NATO chief notes ‘cautious optimism’ but sees no de-escalation yet

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Biden said Russia has positioned more than 150,000 troops, up significantly from previous estimates of around 130,000. The president noted that “an invasion remains entirely possible.”

But Biden’s remarks were a departure from his administration’s dire warnings of an invasion, which only last week top officials described as possibly imminent. Biden began his remarks by noting that over the weekend he had spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin “to make it clear that we are ready to continue to pursue high-level diplomacy to reach written agreements. between Russia, the United States and European nations to address legitimate security“. concerns, if so desired.

Biden noted that the Russians have declared their willingness to continue the talks. “I agree. We need to give diplomacy every chance to succeed. And I think there are real ways to address our respective security concerns.

Biden said the United States remains ready to respond with potentially crippling sanctions to a Russian invasion and said a pipeline that would bring natural gas from Russia to Germany “won’t happen” if Russia sends its forces in Ukraine. Biden also reiterated his promise not to send US military service members to fight there.

Early in the day, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he saw reason for “cautious optimism” after Moscow signaled its willingness to continue talks to resolve the Ukraine crisis and said some of its troops were withdrawing.

The NATO chief added that he had seen no “on the ground” evidence of de-escalation by the Russian military. Stoltenberg said NATO was seeking a “meaningful and sustained” withdrawal of Russian forces, troops and heavy equipment from border areas with Ukraine, a sign of genuine de-escalation.

“There are signs from Moscow that diplomacy needs to continue,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels ahead of meetings with NATO defense ministers on Wednesday. “There are reasons to be optimistic and cautious.”

After Putin signaled on Monday that he was open to diplomacy, Moscow sent a barrage of mixed signals on Tuesday – announcing that some Russian forces were being sent home after completing drills, even as major military drills continued near Ukraine.

At a joint press conference on Tuesday with the visiting German Chancellor, Putin said Russian military leaders “had taken a decision regarding the partial withdrawal of troops” from areas where military exercises were taking place.

Putin also kept up Russia’s harsh rhetoric and military pressure on Ukraine, accusing the Ukrainians – in what has become a frequent and false accusation – of committing “genocide” in two Russian-backed separatist areas in the country. eastern Ukraine. He also said that Ukraine had broken a 2015 agreement to bring peace to this region. US and EU officials say Russia has failed to honor its commitments under the deal.

In a continuing flurry of diplomatic activity, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday, and President Biden spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron, said American officials.

As senior leaders discussed the crisis, some Ukrainian websites were attacked, which escalated tensions.

The Ukrainian government’s Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security said on its Telegram account that Ukrainian bank Privatbank – one of the most widely used retail banks in Ukraine – was facing a “massive DDoS attack”. preventing customers from making payments and using online banking services. DDoS, or “distributed denial of service”, occurs when a site is flooded with traffic, forcing it to go offline.

Some users of the bank’s app have reported payment issues, the government center said, and have been unable to log in, while others have been unable to see their balances and recent transactions. Customers were told their funds were safe and the attack was limited to the app.

Another popular Ukrainian bank, Oschadbank, was also having problems with its internet banking services, and SberBank’s online banking systems were also not working, the center said. Websites of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry and Armed Forces were also attacked, the center said.

Later on Tuesday, another Ukrainian government agency said the “web resources” of Privatbank and Oschadbank had “resumed”.

Analysts warned that Russian cyberattacks could precede a conventional military attack, but it was not immediately clear who was behind the attacks on Ukrainian websites.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on February 15 that these images show some of the units returning to their bases after military exercises near Ukraine. (Reuters)

In his press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin said Russia does not want war and is willing to talk to the United States and NATO about Russia’s demands for security guarantees, but only if his main concerns are at the heart of the talks. These include calls from Moscow for an end to NATO expansion and the withdrawal of NATO forces and equipment from Eastern Europe.

Russia’s next moves will depend on how Washington and NATO react, Putin said.

“But we will strive to reach an agreement with our partners on the issues we have raised to resolve them diplomatically,” Putin said. He warned that Moscow would not allow the talks to drag on.

Scholz said NATO enlargement was not on the agenda, but Putin countered that the alliance could take Ukraine in all the way.

“That’s why we want to resolve this issue now, now, in the near future, in negotiations, by peaceful means,” Putin said.

“We’ve been told for 30 years that NATO isn’t going to expand an inch towards Russia’s borders, and today we see NATO infrastructure right on our doorstep,” he said. -he declares.

Scholz said he agreed with Putin that “diplomatic possibilities are far from exhausted” and called the announced withdrawal of some troops on Tuesday a “good sign”.

US officials have warned that Putin has the last military pieces in position to launch a major attack within days if he decides to do so.

Julianne Smith, the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, said the U.S. had also taken note of reports of Russian withdrawals, but “will have to verify if this is indeed the case.”

“These reports have just come out. We will assess the situation, we will work to try to verify, and we will go from there,” she told reporters at a press briefing in Brussels.

“Today and in recent days we have not seen any evidence of de-escalation,” said another Western official from a NATO member state, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with the rules of country basis.

The Russian military said on Tuesday that more than 30 of its warships were carrying out a live-fire exercise in the Black Sea, involving aircraft, in preparation for a “major” naval exercise that would be overseen by Russia’s naval commander.

There were also announcements of exercises in other regions: Russian warplanes armed with hypersonic Kinzhal missiles and long-range bombers flew more than 900 miles to deploy at Russia’s Hmeimim base in Syria before Russian exercises in the Mediterranean Sea, the military said. In addition, 20 ships of the Northern Fleet were conducting exercises in the Barents Sea.

But the army also announced that some units of Russia’s Western Military District and Southern Military District were loading equipment onto wagons to return to base after completing military exercises, according to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s report. to Putin on Monday that some exercises were ending and others would end soon.

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said Feb. 14 that Russia is “doing everything you expect” ahead of a possible invasion of Ukraine. (The Washington Post)

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine would wait to see if Russia was seriously considering reducing its forces before concluding that Russia was preparing to defuse.

“Russia keeps making statements of all kinds, so we have a rule: we believe it when we see it, not when we hear about it. We will believe in de-escalation when we see their withdrawal,” Kuleba told reporters in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.

After a military buildup on Ukraine’s borders last spring, Russia withdrew its forces but left significant amounts of military equipment in place, according to Ukrainian officials.

Kiev remained calm and open for business on Tuesday. While there was no sense of panic, an increasing number of foreign residents were deciding to leave. Robert Grant, 57, an American banker, was on his way to the airport on Tuesday for a flight to Montreal.

He does not predict an invasion, but his wife, a Ukrainian surgeon, is pregnant and they have decided to leave just in case.

“I don’t want to have a baby in a war zone,” said Grant, who has lived in Ukraine for nearly 30 years. “We were planning on leaving anyway to have the baby, but we decided to go now.” He estimated that half of their friends made similar calculations. Ukrainian families were also heading west or to summer homes in the Carpathian Mountains.

Hendrix reported from Kiev, Harris from Washington, Pannett from Sydney and Rauhala from Brussels. Loveday Morris in Berlin, Missy Ryan in Washington, and David Stern in Lviv, Ukraine contributed to this report.

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