Western leaders said Tuesday they were seeing positive signs that Russia was looking to ease tensions over Ukraine, after Moscow announced it was pulling back some of the troops deployed on its neighbour’s borders.
In the first announced withdrawal from among more than 100,000 troops Russia amassed on the Ukrainian border, the defence ministry in Moscow said some soldiers and hardware were returning to bases at the end of planned exercises.
Western leaders had accused Moscow of positioning the troops in advance of a possible invasion of pro-Western Ukraine, warning that any attack would be met with severe economic sanctions.
After a meeting Tuesday with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin said Russia “of course” did not want war, and was willing to look for solutions with the West.
“We are ready to work further together. We are ready to go down the negotiations track,” Putin told a joint press conference with Scholz, confirming a “partial pullback of troops“.
The German leader joined others in the West in expressing hope that steps were being taken towards de-escalation in the crisis.
“That we are now hearing that some troops are being withdrawn is in any case a good sign,” Scholz said.
“For Europeans it is clear that lasting security cannot be achieved against Russia but only with Russia.”
– ‘Reason for hope’ –
Moscow released few details about the troop withdrawal and there was no immediate outside confirmation.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels there was not yet “any sign of de-escalation on the ground” but that there were “grounds for cautious optimism”.
A French government spokesman said it was a “positive signal” if Russian forces were indeed withdrawing, while Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said “every real step of de-escalation would be a reason for hope”.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there were “signs of a diplomatic opening” with Russia, but that intelligence on a possible invasion was “still not encouraging”.
The crisis — the worst between Russia and the West since the Cold War ended — reached a peak this week, with US officials warning that a full-scale invasion, including an assault on Kyiv, was possible within days.
Washington took the dramatic step on Monday of relocating its embassy in Kyiv to the western city of Lviv, after previously urging US citizens to leave Ukraine.
The Russian defence ministry announced the partial withdrawal on Tuesday morning, saying some forces deployed near Ukraine had finished their exercises and were packing up to leave.
“Units of the southern and western military districts, having completed their tasks, have already begun loading onto rail and road transport and today they will begin moving to their military garrisons,” the ministry’s chief spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, said in a statement.
It was not immediately clear how many units were involved and what impact the withdrawals would have on the overall number of troops surrounding Ukraine.
Konashenkov said “large-scale” Russian military drills were continuing in many areas, including joint exercises in Belarus and naval exercises in the Black Sea and elsewhere.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the pullback was the “usual process” after military exercises and blamed the West for the crisis.
“This is nothing but a totally unprecedented campaign to provoke tensions,” he said, calling decisions to move embassies to western Ukraine “ostentatious hysteria”.
– ‘Believe what you see’ –
Ukraine said deterrence efforts against Russia appeared to be working but that it would watch to see if any Russian withdrawal was real.
“We have a rule: don’t believe what you hear, believe what you see. When we see a withdrawal, we will believe in a de-escalation,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters.
In a separate move likely to anger Kyiv, Russian lawmakers on Tuesday voted to urge Putin to recognise two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as “sovereign and independent states”.
This would allow Russia to abandon the Minsk agreements peace plan for eastern Ukraine and potentially move in Russian troops — giving Putin a strong hand to play in any future negotiations with Kyiv.
The European Union “strongly” condemned the move, saying it would violate the Minsk agreements that Moscow had signed up to.
Russia has repeatedly blamed the Ukraine crisis on the West, saying the United States and western Europe are ignoring Russia’s legitimate security concerns.
The Kremlin insists NATO must give assurances Ukraine will never be admitted as a member and roll back its presence in several eastern European and ex-Soviet countries.
Russia already controls the Crimean Peninsula that it seized from Ukraine in 2014 and supports separatist forces who have taken control of parts of eastern Ukraine, in a conflict that has claimed more than 14,000 lives.