Russia ready to discuss confidence-building measures, Putin says after talks with German Scholz
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Moscow was ready for talks with the United States and NATO on limits on missile deployments and military transparency, in a further sign of easing East-West tensions. The statement came after Russia announced it was withdrawing some troops from exercises that raised fears of a possible invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking after talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin said the United States and NATO had rejected Moscow’s request to keep Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries out of NATO, to stop the deployment of weapons near the Russian borders and to roll back the forces of the Eastern European alliance.
But the United States and NATO agreed to discuss a series of security measures that Russia had previously proposed.
Putin said Russia was ready to engage in talks on limiting the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe, transparency of exercises and other confidence-building measures, but stressed the need for the West to take into account the main demands of Russia.
The statement followed the Russian Defense Ministry’s announcement of a partial troop withdrawal after military exercises, adding to hopes that the Kremlin will not invade Ukraine imminently. The Russian military gave no details on where the troops were retreating from, or how many.
Scholz said he agreed the diplomatic options were “far from exhausted”. The announcement of the troop withdrawal is a “good signal”, he said, adding that he hopes “others will follow”.
The announcement boosted global financial markets and the long-suffering ruble after weeks of escalating into Europe’s worst East-West standoff in decades. It came a day after Russia’s foreign minister signaled the country was ready to continue talking about the security grievances that led to the Ukraine crisis – a move that changed the tenor after weeks of tension. .
Hours before the Russian Defense Ministry statement on troops, a US defense official said Russian units were moving closer to the Ukrainian border, not away from it. And Western officials continued to warn that the Russian military could attack at any time, with some floating Wednesday as a possible invasion day.
The NATO chief said the alliance did not yet have evidence of a Russian withdrawal.
The White House declined to comment immediately on Russian troop movements.
Fears of an invasion have arisen as Russia has massed more than 130,000 troops near Ukraine. Russia denies having such plans, despite placing troops on Ukraine’s northern, southern and eastern borders and launching massive military exercises nearby. The United States and other NATO allies, meanwhile, have moved troops and military supplies to Ukraine’s western flank, but not to confront Russian forces, and have pledged increased financial aid. to the former Soviet nation.
Moscow held up Tuesday’s withdrawal announcement as proof that war fears were manufactured by a hostile US-led West: “February 15, 2022 will go down in history as the day that Western war propaganda failed. Humiliated and destroyed without a single shot,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova tweeted.
Yet Ukraine remains effectively surrounded on three sides by the military forces of its much more powerful neighbor, and even if the immediate threat recedes, the longer-term risk remains. Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea to Ukraine in 2014, and some 14,000 people have been killed in fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not say where the withdrawing troops had been deployed or how many were leaving.
He posted images of tanks and armored vehicles rolling on a train and a tank commander saluting his forces as a military band played. The ministry did not reveal where or when the footage was taken, or where the military vehicles were heading, other than “to permanent deployment locations.”
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the troops were returning “as planned”. He said these drills always follow a schedule — regardless of “who thinks what and who gets hysterical about it, who deploys real informational terrorism.”
Ukrainian leaders have expressed skepticism.
“We will not believe when we hear, we will believe when we see. When we see the troops withdrawing, we will believe in de-escalation,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.
Speaking in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: “So far we have seen no de-escalation on the ground, no sign of a reduction in the Russian military presence on the borders of the EU. ‘Ukraine.” However, he added that there were “some reasons for cautious optimism” for the diplomatic efforts, given the signals coming from Moscow in recent days.
Stoltenberg said Russia has in the past moved into areas with troops and equipment and then retreated leaving military equipment in place for quick use later. He said NATO wanted to see a “meaningful and sustained withdrawal of forces, troops, and especially heavy equipment”.
European leaders have been scrambling to prevent another war on their continent, after several tense weeks that have left Europeans feeling caught between Russia and the United States, and have further driven up domestic energy prices in because of Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.
Scholz’s meeting with Putin came a day after he spoke with the Ukrainian leader in Kyiv. In his opening address to the Kremlin, Scholz referred to tensions in Ukraine, but also noted Germany’s economic ties to Russia – which complicate Western efforts to agree on how to punish Russia in the event. of invasion.
Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, one of Russia’s most outspoken European critics, met with Lavrov in Moscow, and they discussed ways to use the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to further of talks aimed at easing tensions around Ukraine.
Moscow wants guarantees that NATO will not allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to become members. He also wants the alliance to stop arms deployments in Ukraine and withdraw its forces from Eastern Europe.
The United States reacted coldly. “The path of diplomacy remains available if Russia chooses to engage constructively,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, senior deputy White House press secretary. “However, we are lucid about the prospects of this, given the steps Russia is taking on the ground in plain sight.”
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss reiterated that the danger of an invasion still exists, telling Sky News it “could be imminent”. Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt issued a similar warning, and Estonia’s foreign intelligence agency said the Russian armed forces could launch an operation “from the second half of February”.
A US defense official said a small number of Russian ground units had been leaving larger staging areas for several days, taking up positions closer to the Ukrainian border at what would be jumping off points if Putin launched a invasion.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss information not made public.
Maxar Technologies, a commercial satellite imagery company that monitors Russia’s buildup, reported an increase in Russian military activity in Belarus, Crimea and western Russia, including the arrival of helicopters, ground attack aircraft and fighter-bombers at forward positions. Photos taken over a 48-hour period also show ground forces leaving their garrisons and combat units moving in convoy.
Meanwhile, Russian lawmakers have urged 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.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the issue of recognizing self-declared republics is “very, very relevant to the public.” But it was unclear how Putin would react or how that might influence Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
As the United States warns that Russia could invade Ukraine any day and kyiv has alerted residents to find the nearest bomb shelters, the drumbeat of the war was hardly heard in Russia itself.
The Kremlin has called US warnings of an impending attack “hysteria” and “absurdity”, and many Russians believe Washington is deliberately stoking panic and fomenting tensions to spark a conflict for domestic reasons. Few Russians expect a war.
In the Russian region of Belgorod, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Ukrainian border, residents continue to live as usual, even as more and more military personnel are crossing the village streets. “Airplanes, helicopters just started flying, I guess, to patrol the border,” Vladimir Konovalenko said. Villager Lyudmila Nechvolod says she is not worried.
“We are friends with Ukraine. And we are not sure that Ukraine wants to make war on us. … We are really on the border, we really have relatives here and there, everyone has someone there (on the Ukrainian side),” she said. “Nobody wants war.”