Russia appears to be continuing with its military buildup on Ukraine’s borders despite claiming it is moving troops away from the area, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said ahead of a defense ministers meeting in Brussels.
Stoltenberg said there were no visible signs Wednesday of “de-escalation on the ground” a day after Moscow asserted it was moving some troops and weapons back to bases after the completion of military drills. Stoltenberg added that Russia has “always moved forces back and forth” and that its release of video footage over the last 24 hours purporting to show its forces retreating “does not confirm a real withdrawal.”
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Stoltenberg said NATO allies “remain ready to engage with Russia,” which wants Ukraine to drop its ambition to one day join the military alliance that promotes democratic values and was formed in the wake of World War II.
Defense ministers from the 30 NATO member countries are meeting for the next two days amid fears that Russia could be planning to invade its neighbor Ukraine, a scenario that Moscow has dismissed as “western hysteria” and not matched by evidence even though it has sent approximately 150,000 troops to encircle Ukraine’s territory.
The Kremlin on Wednesday said it was in the process of sending back even more troops to permanent bases. It didn’t specify how many. Russia’s defense ministry released a video that it said showed armored vehicles moving across a bridge away from Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
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In remarks at the White House on Tuesday, President Joe Biden noted that U.S. officials and military experts had not verified Russia’s troop withdrawal claims.
“Indeed, our analysts indicate that they remain very much in a threatening position,” he said. Ukrainian officials said they were awaiting concrete evidence of Russian withdrawals.
“(Nothing) has changed on the ground in any meaningful way. Putin could have invaded yesterday, he can still do so tomorrow,” Russian analyst Mark Galeotti noted on Twitter.
In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared Wednesday a “day of national unity” and encouraged Ukrainians to sing the national anthem and wave flags.
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According to his public remarks over the last several weeks, Zelenskyy’s assessment of the invasion threat Ukraine faces has diverged from U.S. intelligence. Several U.S. officials appeared to indicate they believed Russia’s attack would happen Feb. 16.
“These emotional swings and psychological pressure are very tiring. Today everyone breathed a sigh of relief that we weren’t attacked,” Ukrainian journalist Kristina Berdynskykh wrote on Twitter. “Tomorrow there’ll be information they’re moving stuff closer to the border again and it will all start again. But people will get used to this too and will just stop reading the news.”
Late Tuesday, Ukraine appeared to blame Russia for a cyberattack that temporarily shuttered the websites of its army and some of its largest banks. The Kremlin denied it was behind the assault and Russian lawmaker Valentina Matviyenko accused the U.S. of getting in the way of Russia’s attempts to normalize it ties with Ukraine.
“The main problem in our relations with Ukraine, as I see it, is that Kyiv is not independent in its foreign and domestic policies. The Kyiv authorities are directed by Washington. And the adversarial relationship with Russia is the price that Ukraine has to pay for U.S. patronage,” Matviyenko opined in an interview with Russian state media.