MOSCOW (AP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Moscow is ready for talks with the U.S. and NATO on limits for missile deployments and military transparency, in a new sign of easing East-West tensions. The statement came after Russia announced it is pulling back some troops from exercises that have raised fears of a potential invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking after talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin said the U.S. and NATO rejected Moscow’s demand to keep Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations out of NATO, halt weapons deployments near Russian borders and roll back alliance forces from Eastern Europe.
But the U.S. and NATO have agreed to discuss a range of security measures that Russia had previously proposed.
Putin said Russia is ready to engage in talks on limiting the deployment of intermediate range missiles in Europe, transparency of drills and other confidence-building measures but emphasized the need for the West to heed Russia’s main demands.
The statement followed the Russian Defense Ministry’s announcement of a partial pullback of troops after military drills, adding to hopes the Kremlin might not invade Ukraine imminently. The Russian military gave no details on where the troops were pulling back from, or how many.
Scholz said he agrees that diplomatic options are “far from exhausted.” The announcement of troops being pulled back is a “good signal,” he said, adding that he hopes that “more will follow.”
The announcement buoyed world financial markets and the long-suffering ruble after weeks of escalation in Europe’s worst East-West standoff in decades. It came a day after Russia’s foreign minister indicated the country was ready to keep talking about the security grievances that led to the Ukraine crisis – a gesture that changed the tenor after weeks of tensions.
Hours before the Russian Defense Ministry statement on the troops, a U.S. 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. NATO’s chief said the alliance had no proof yet of a Russian retreat.
The White House declined to offer immediate comment on Russian troop movements.
The fears of an invasion grew from the fact that Russia has massed more than 130,000 troops near Ukraine. Russia denies it has any such plans, despite placing troops on Ukraine’s borders to the north, south and east and launching massive military drills nearby. U.S. and other NATO allies, meanwhile, have moved troops and military supplies toward Ukraine’s western flank, although not to confront Russian forces, and promised more financial aid to the ex-Soviet nation.
Moscow brandished Tuesday’s pullback announcement as proof that fears of war were fabricated by a hostile, U.S.-led West: “February 15, 2022, will go down in history as the day Western war propaganda failed. Humiliated and destroyed without a single shot fired,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova tweeted.
Yet Ukraine remains effectively surrounded on three sides by military forces from its much more powerful neighbor, and even if the immediate threat recedes, longer-term risk remains. Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and some 14,000 people have been killed in fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russia separatists in the country’s east.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not indicate where the withdrawing troops had been deployed or how many were leaving.
It released images of tanks and armored vehicles rolling onto a train, and a tank commander saluting his forces while a military band played. The ministry did not disclose where or when the images were taken, or where the military vehicles were headed, other than “to places of permanent deployment.”
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the troops were returning “according to plan.” He said such drills always adhered to a schedule – regardless of “who thinks what and who gets hysterical about it, who is deploying real informational terrorism.”
Ukraine’s leaders expressed skepticism.
“We won’t believe when we hear, we’ll believe when we see. When we see troops pulling out, we’ll believe in de-escalation,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.
Speaking in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said: “So far, we have not seen any de-escalation on the ground, not seen any signs of reduced Russian military presence on the borders of Ukraine.”
However, he added that there are “some grounds for cautious optimism” for 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, then pulled back leaving military materiel in place for rapid use later. He said that NATO wants to see a “significant and enduring withdrawal of forces, troops, and not least the heavy equipment.”
European leaders have been scrambling to try to head off a new war on their continent, after several tense weeks that have left Europeans feeling caught between Russia and the U.S., and further pushed up household energy prices because of Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.
Scholz’s meeting with Putin came a day after sitting down with Ukraine’s leader in Kyiv. In his opening remarks in the Kremlin, Scholz addressed the Ukraine tensions but also noted Germany’s economic ties with Russia – which complicate Western efforts to agree on how to punish Russia in case of an invasion.
Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau of Poland, one of Russia’s most strident European critics, met in Moscow with Lavrov, and they discussed ways to use the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for more talks aimed at easing tensions around Ukraine.
Moscow wants guarantees that NATO will not allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members. It also wants the alliance to halt weapons deployments to Ukraine and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe.
The U.S. reacted coolly.
“The path for diplomacy remains available if Russia chooses to engage constructively,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “However, we are clear-eyed about the prospects of that, given the steps Russia is taking on the ground in plain sight.”
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss reiterated that the danger of an invasion still exists, telling Sky News that 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 U.S. defense official said small numbers of Russian ground units have been moving out of larger assembly areas for several days, taking up positions closer to the Ukrainian border at what would be departure points if Putin launched an invasion.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss information not publicly released.
Maxar Technologies, a commercial satellite imagery company that has been monitoring the Russian buildup, reported increased Russian military activity in Belarus, Crimea and western Russia, including the arrival of helicopters, ground-attack aircraft and fighter-bomber jets at forward locations. The photos taken over a 48-hour period also show ground forces leaving their garrisons and combat units moving into convoy formation.
Meanwhile, Russian lawmakers 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 the self-proclaimed republics is “very, very relevant to the public.” But it was unclear how Putin would respond or how this could influence Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
While the U.S. warns that Russia could invade Ukraine any day and Kyiv alerted residents to find their nearest bomb shelters, the drumbeat of war was hardly heard in Russia itself.
The Kremlin has cast the U.S. warnings of an imminent attack as “hysteria” and “absurdity,” and many Russians believe Washington is deliberately stoking panic and fomenting tensions to trigger a conflict for domestic reasons.
Few Russians expect a war.
In Russia’s Belgorod region about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Ukraine’s border, residents carry on with life as usual, even as more military personnel have been passing through village streets.
“Planes, helicopters just started flying, I guess, to patrol the border,” said Vladimir Konovalenko.
Villager Lyudmila Nechvolod says she’s not worried.
“We are friends with Ukraine. And we are not sure that Ukraine wants war with us. … We are really on the border, we really have relatives here and there, everyone has somebody there (on the Ukrainian side),” she said. “No one wants war.”