Russia said on Tuesday some of its military units were returning to their bases after exercises near Ukraine and mocked repeated Western warnings about a looming invasion, but NATO said it had yet to see any sign of de-escalation on the ground.
Russia did not say how many units were being withdrawn, and how far, after a build-up of some 130,000 Russian troops to the north, east and south of Ukraine that has triggered one of the worst crises in relations with the West since the Cold War.
“We’ve always said the troops will return to their bases after the exercises are over. This is the case this time as well,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.
NATO’s chief welcomed signals from Russia in the past two days that it may be looking for a diplomatic solution but urged Moscow to demonstrate its will to act.
“There are signs from Moscow that diplomacy should continue. This gives grounds for cautious optimism. But so far we have not seen any sign of de-escalation on the ground from the Russian side,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters.
He said Russia often left military equipment behind after exercises, creating the potential for forces to regroup.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv would only believe that Russia was moving to de-escalate the situation if it saw for itself that Russian troops were being pulled back.
“If we see a withdrawal, we will believe in a de-escalation,” Interfax Ukraine quoted him as saying.
Russia has always denied planning to invade, saying it can exercise troops on its own territory as it sees fit. It has been pressing for a set of security guarantees from the West, saying it fears NATO is encroaching on its Western flank.
Moscow sought to portray the troop movements it announced on Tuesday as proof that Western talk of war had been both false and hysterical.
“February 15, 2022 will go down in history as the day Western war propaganda failed. Humiliated and destroyed without a single shot fired,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
“COULD BE IMMINENT”
The massive show of force near Ukraine’s borders has prompted months of frantic diplomacy and drawn threats of unprecedented sanctions if it invades, culminating in a crescendo of U.S. and British warnings in recent days.
“In terms of the timing of an attack, it could be imminent,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Tuesday. She said Russian troops could reach Ukraine’s capital Kyiv “very, very quickly”.
Truss said Britain would need to see a full-scale removal of Russian troops to back up Russia’s claim it had no plan to invade Ukraine. France said it had yet to confirm the return of some troops to bases, though this would be a positive sign.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, on the latest Western diplomatic mission to defuse the crisis, began talks with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.
Video footage published by Russia’s defence ministry showed some tanks and other armoured vehicles being loaded onto railway flatcars.
Russian shares, government bonds and the rouble, which have been hit by fears of impending conflict, rose sharply, and Ukrainian government bonds also rallied. Oil dropped more than 3% from a seven-year high reached on Monday.
Western military analysts said they needed more information to judge the significance of the latest troop movements.
“One should maintain an air of cautious scepticism,” said Henry Boyd of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “There have been past discrepancies between Russia’s official announcements and its actions on the ground.”
Many of the Russian forces in Belarus for drills due to end on Sunday have come from thousands of miles away in Russia’s central and eastern military districts.
Rob Lee, a military analyst who specialises in Russia, said the announcement was “potentially good news” but it was important to see where those forces went after the culmination of joint exercises between Russia and Belarus on Sunday.
“As long as that remains nearby, Russia will have the capacity to conduct a significant escalation, though possibly not on as short notice,” he said.
Konrad Muzyka, director of the Poland-based Rochan consultancy, told Reuters it would take several days to verify the latest moves via satellite imagery.
“It should also be noted that new trains with equipment from Central Russia keep on arriving near the border and that Russian forces continue to move towards staging areas. The announcement stands in a direct opposition to what Russia has been doing for the past few days,” he said.
Commercial satellite images taken on Sunday and Monday showed a flurry of Russian military activity at several locations near Ukraine, according to the private U.S. company that released the pictures.
U.S.-based Maxar Technologies pointed to the arrival of several large deployments of troops and attack helicopters as well as new deployments of ground attack aircraft and fighter-bomber jets to forward locations.
Kremlin spokesman Peskov accused the United States of fuelling the crisis by warning repeatedly of an impending invasion, to the point where he said Putin had made jokes about it.
“He asks (us) to find out if the exact time, to the hour, of the start of the war has been published. It’s impossible to be understanding of this manic information madness,” Peskov told reporters.