- Russia added 7,000 troops near Ukraine's borders despite Kremlin decla
- Russia has massed more than 150,000 troops east, north and south of Ukraine
- Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled that he wants a peaceful path out of the crisis
Ukrainians defied pressure from Moscow with a national show of flag-waving unity Wednesday, while the US warned that Russia had added as many as 7,000 troops near Ukraine's borders despite Kremlin declarations that forces were being pulled back from the region.
While a feared Russian invasion of Ukraine did not materialize as feared, the United States and its allies maintained that the threat is still strong, with Europe's security and economic stability in the balance.
Russia has massed more than 150,000 troops east, north and south of Ukraine, according to Western estimates. Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled that he wants a peaceful path out of the crisis, and US President Joe Biden promised that the US would continue to give diplomacy "every chance," but he struck a sceptical tone about Moscow's intentions. Biden also insisted that Washington and its allies would not "sacrifice basic principles" respecting Ukraine sovereignty.
Russian Defence Ministry video showed a trainload of armoured vehicles moving across a bridge away from Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. It also announced that more tank units were being loaded on trains to move back to their permanent bases after training exercises. But at the same time, Russia continued war games near Ukraine's borders and across its vast territory.
A senior US administration official said the West detected that Russia had increased its force near Ukraine by 7,000 troops, with some arriving as recently as Wednesday, and that there had been a marked increase in false claims by Russians that the Kremlin might use as pretext for an invasion.
The official said those claims included reports of unmarked graves of civilians allegedly killed by Ukrainian forces, statements that the US and Ukraine are developing biological or chemical weapons, and claims that the West is funnelling in guerrillas to kill Ukrainians.
The official was not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive operations and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The official did not provide underlying evidence for the assertions.
The US and Europe are maintaining threats of harsh sanctions. Trust between East and West remains elusive.
"We haven't seen a pullback," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News. "He (Putin) can pull the trigger. He can pull it today. He can pull it tomorrow. He can pull it next week. The forces are there if he wants to renew aggression against Ukraine."
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US had seen "more Russian forces, not fewer."
Asked why Russians would claim to be withdrawing when government intelligence, commercial satellite photos and social media videos showed no evidence of that, Price said: "This is the Russian playbook, to paint a picture publicly … while they do the opposite."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance also had not seen "any withdrawal of Russian forces," as did multiple European governments. Before chairing a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels, he said:
"If they really start to withdraw forces, that's something we will welcome, but that remains to be seen."
In the meantime, the alliance is examining this week how and when to rapidly dispatch troops and equipment to countries closest to Russia and the Black Sea region should Moscow order an invasion.