- Russia had announced some units participating in military exercises would begin returning to bases
- Much still remains unclear about Russia’s plans and how the latest crisis over Ukraine will play out
- Meanwhile, France was also trying to confirm the information about Russian troop movements
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Germany’s chancellor on Tuesday after the Kremlin signaled that it was still possible for diplomacy to head off what Western officials have said could be an imminent invasion of Ukraine. In another possible sign that the Kremlin would like to lower the temperature raised by its amassing of troops near Ukraine’s border, Russia announced that some units participating in military exercises would begin returning to their bases.
But much remains unclear about Russia’s plans and how the latest crisis over Ukraine will play out.
Here’s a look at what is happening where and why:
WHAT IS THE RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT SAYING?
Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that some units participating in exercises would begin returning to their bases. But it wasn’t immediately clear where exactly these troops were deployed or how many were leaving.
The news came a day after Western officials said some forces and military hardware were moving toward the Ukrainian border, muddying the picture. Russia denies it has any plans to invade Ukraine, despite placing troops on Ukraine’s borders to the north, south and east and launching massive military drills nearby.
Russia has massed more than 130,000 troops near Ukraine. While the US agreed that there was still a possibility of a diplomatic path out, the country, along with the UK and other allies, have kept up their warnings that those forces could move on Ukraine at any moment.
At a meeting with Putin on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated that Russia was ready to keep talking about the security grievances it has raised during the crisis.
Asked Tuesday about troops returning to permanent bases after exercises, Lavrov stressed that Russia holds military drills “on its own territory and according to its own plans, they start, go on and end as planned.”
Ukraine’s leaders voiced skepticism.
“Russia constantly makes various statements,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. “That’s why we have the rule: 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.”
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said France was trying to confirm the information about Russian troop movements and he would speak “carefully.”
“But if confirmed, that’s obviously a good thing. That would be a sign of de-escalation, which we have been calling for several weeks. That would also confirm that we were right to reinitiate dialogue,” Attal said. French President Emmanuel Macron met with Putin in Moscow last week.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that “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.”
Stoltenberg said Russia has in the past moved into areas, like Belarus, with troops and equipment, then pulled back while leaving military material 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.”
However, Stoltenberg said there are “some grounds for cautious optimism” for diplomatic efforts given the signals coming from Moscow.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Russia was sending “mixed signals.”
“We are seeing Russian openness to conversations,” Johnson said after a meeting of his government’s COBRA crisis committee. “On the other hand, the intelligence we are seeing today is still not encouraging.”
He said Russia continued to build field hospitals in Belarus near the Ukrainian border, which “can only be construed as preparation for an invasion.”
WHAT’S HAPPENING ON THE DIPLOMATIC FRONT?
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met Putin in Moscow, a day after he visited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv in a show of solidarity.
On Monday, Scholz demanded “clear steps to de-escalate the current tensions” from Russia. And he underlined Western unity in preparing to impose tough sanctions if Russia does encroach further into Ukraine, though once again he didn’t specify exactly what those would be.
Scholz said that “we are in a position any day to take the necessary decisions.”
“No one should doubt the determination and preparedness of the EU, NATO, Germany and the United States, for example, when it comes to what has to be done if there is military aggression against Ukraine,” he added. “We will then act, and there will be very far-reaching measures that would have a significant influence on Russia’s possibilities of economic development.”
Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau of Poland, currently the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, met Lavrov in Moscow. Rau said the OSCE has offered multilateral talks aimed at easing tensions.
Ukraine’s foreign minister hosted his Italian counterpart. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he conveyed to Zelenskyy during a phone call Japan’s strong support for diplomatic efforts and sanctions against Russia in case of aggression.
WHAT DO RUSSIAN LAWMAKERS WANT?
Russian lawmakers called on Putin to recognize rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine, the two self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, as independent states. The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, voted Tuesday to submit an appeal to Putin to that effect, put forward earlier by Russia’s Communist party.
Kyiv isn’t fulfilling the Minsk agreements, mediated by Germany and France in an effort to bring peace to eastern Ukraine, and “our citizens and compatriots that live in Donbas need help and support,” State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said on the Telegram messaging app.
Volodin said the document will be submitted to Putin “immediately.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier Tuesday that the issue of recognizing the self-proclaimed republics is “very, very relevant to the public.” But it was unclear what consequences if any the vote would have.
WHAT’S THE FEELING IN MOSCOW?
While the US has warned that Russia could invade Ukraine any day, the drumbeat of war is all but unheard in Moscow, where pundits and ordinary people alike don’t expect Putin to attack Russia’s ex-Soviet neighbor.
The Kremlin has cast the US warnings of an imminent attack as “hysteria” and “absurdity,” and many Russians believe that Washington is deliberately stoking panic and fomenting tensions to trigger a conflict for domestic reasons.
Putin’s angry rhetoric about NATO’s plans to expand to Russia’s “doorstep” and its refusal to hear Moscow’s concerns has struck a chord with the public, tapping into a sense of betrayal by the West after the end of the Cold War and widespread suspicion about Western designs.
(With inputs from AP)