Russia says some troops withdrawing from Ukraine’s border; NATO chief notes ‘cautious optimism’ but sees no de-escalation yet

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

But Biden’s remarks signaled a shift from his administration’s dire warnings of an invasion, which only last week senior officials described as possibly imminent.

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

The NATO chief added that he saw no evidence “on the ground” of de-escalation by the Russian military. Stoltenberg said NATO is looking for a “significant and enduring” withdrawal of Russian forces, troops and heavy equipment from areas bordering Ukraine as a sign of real de-escalation.

“There are signs from Moscow that diplomacy should continue,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels ahead of meetings with NATO defense ministers Wednesday. “There are grounds for cautious optimism.”

After Russian President Putin signaled Monday that he was open to diplomacy, Moscow sent a barrage of contradictory — announcing that some Russian forces were sent home Vladimir signals Tuesday drills, even as major military exercises continued near Ukraine.

In a joint news conference Tuesday with the visiting German chancellor, Putin said Russia’s military leadership “made a decision about partial withdrawal of troops” from the areas where military exercises were taking place.

Putin also maintained Russia’s tough rhetoric and military pressure on Ukraine, accusing the Ukrainians — in what has become a frequent and false charge — of committing “genocide” in two Russian-backed separatist zones in eastern Ukraine. He also said Ukraine had breached a 2015 deal to bring peace to that region. US and European officials say Russia has not honored its commitments under the deal.

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

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As senior leaders discussed the crisis, some websites in Ukraine came under attack, adding to tensions.

The Ukrainian government’s Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security said on its Telegram account that the 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. DDoS, or “distributed denial of service,” occurs when a site is flooded with traffic, forcing it offline.

Some users of the bank’s app reported problems with payments, the government center said, and were unable to log in, while others couldn’t see their balances and recent transactions. Customers were told that their funds were safe and that the attack was limited to the app.

Another popular Ukrainian bank, Oschadbank, was also having problems, with its Internet banking down, and SberBank’s online banking systems also weren’t functioning, the center said. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry and armed forces websites were also attacked, the center said.

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

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

The Russian Ministry of Defense said on Feb. 15 that this footage shows some of the units returning to their bases after military exercises near Ukraine. (Reuters)

In his news 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 its key concerns are central to the talks. Those include Moscow’s calls for an end to NATO expansion and the removal of NATO forces and equipment from Eastern Europe.

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

“But we will strive to reach an agreement with our partners about the matters that were raised by us to resolve them diplomatically,” Putin said. He warned that Moscow would not allow the discussions to be drawn out endlessly.

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Scholz said NATO’s enlargement was not on the agenda, but Putin countered that the alliance might admit Ukraine down the line.

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

“We have been told for 30 years that NATO is not going to expand a single inch toward Russia’s borders, and today we see NATO infrastructure right on our doorstep,” he said.

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

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

Julianne Smith, the US permanent representative to NATO, said the United States has also noted the reports of Russian pullbacks but “will have to verify if that is in fact the case.”

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

“Today and in recent days, we have seen no evidence of de-escalation,” said another Western official from a NATO member state, speaking on the condition of anonymity under the country’s ground rules.

Russia’s military said Tuesday that more than 30 of its naval vessels were carrying out a live-fire exercise in the Black Sea, with aircraft taking part, in preparation for a “major” naval exercise that would be supervised by Russia’s naval commander.

There were also announcements about drills in other regions: Russian fighter jets armed with Kinzhal hypersonic missiles and long-range bombers flew more than 900 miles to deploy at Russia’s Hmeimim base in Syria ahead of Russian drills in the Mediterranean Sea, the military said. Additionally, 20 Northern Fleet ships were drilling in Barents Sea exercises.

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But the military also announced that some units from Russia’s Western Military District and Southern Military District were loading equipment onto cars to return to base afterrail military exercises, in line with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s report to Putin on Monday that some drills were ending and others would end soon.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said on Feb. 14 that Russia is “doing all the things you would expect” ahead of a possible invasion of Ukraine. (The Washington Post)

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine would wait to see whether Russia was serious about drawing down its forces before concluding that Russia was moving to de-escalate.

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

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.

Kyiv remained quiet and open for business 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 for a flight to Montreal on Tuesday.

He does not predict an invasion, but his wife, a Ukrainian surgeon, is pregnant, and they 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 almost 30 years. “We were planning to leave anyway to have the baby, but we decided to go now.” He estimated that half of their friends were making similar calculations. Ukrainian families were also heading west or to summer homes in the Carpathian Mountains.

Hendrix reported from Kyiv, 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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