Russia begins pulling some troops away from Ukrainian border, says defence ministry

Ukraine flag flies from High Castle Park in Lviv, Ukraine. Photograph: Christopher Occhicone/Bloomberg


Some troops in Russia’s military districts adjacent to Ukraine are returning to their bases after completing drills, Russia’s defence ministry was quoted as saying on Tuesday, a move that could de-escalate frictions between Moscow and the West.

Russia’s Interfax news agency cited the ministry as saying that while large-scale drills across the country continued, some units of the southern and western military districts have completed their exercises and started returning to base.

Russia has amassed over 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, prompting fears of an invasion, especially as Moscow’s February 10th-20th joint drills with Belarus mean that Ukraine is almost encircled by the Russian military.

Although Moscow has denied ever planning to attack Ukraine, it has demanded legally binding guarantees from the United States and Nato that Kyiv will not be allowed to join the military bloc. Washington and Brussels have so far refused to make such pledges.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz was expected in Moscow later on Tuesday to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin in a high stakes mission to avert war.

It comes as Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Monday called on the country’s people to fly flags and sing the national anthem in unison on February 16th, a date that some Western media say Russian could invade.

Ukrainian government officials stressed that Zelenskiy was not predicting an attack on Wednesday, but responding skeptically to the foreign media reports.

“They tell us February 16th will be the day of the attack. We will make it a day of unity,” Mr Zelenskiy said in a video address to the nation.

“They are trying to frighten us by yet again naming a date for the start of military action,” Mr Zelenskiy said. “On that day, we will hang our national flags, wear yellow and blue banners, and show the whole world our unity.”

Mr Zelenskiy has long said that, while he believes Russia is threatening to attack his country, the likelihood of an imminent invasion has been overstated by Western allies, responding to Moscow’s efforts to intimidate Ukraine and sow panic.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, told Reuters the president was responding in part “with irony” to media reports of the potential date of the invasion.

Diplomacy

German chancellor Olaf Scholz has assured Kyiv that it could rely on his country’s support.

“There are no good reasons for the activities on the Ukrainian border. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine are not negotiable. We expect Russia to take clear steps to resolve the situation,” Mr Scholz said beside Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Monday.

“Our common goal is to prevent an escalation. For this, we are working on all levels very intensively... We are ready for serious dialogue with Russia on the issue of European security. Nato and the United States have provided Russia with specific proposals that we support, and now we are waiting for a response from Russia.”

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The US and several European states have begun withdrawing diplomats from Kyiv and urged their citizens to leave Ukraine, amid warnings from Washington and London that a new, large-scale attack by Russia could be imminent.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Monday the country will relocate its embassy in Ukraine from Kyiv to the western city of Lviv, citing the “dramatic acceleration in the build-up of Russian forces”.

Russia has sent more than 100,000 troops and heavy weapons towards Ukraine while threatening to take “military-technical” steps if the West refuses to bar Ukraine and other countries in eastern Europe from joining Nato, and the alliance does not withdraw forces from existing member states in the region – demands the US and allies have flatly rejected.

“Is there a chance to reach an agreement with our partners on key issues or is it an attempt to drag us into an endless negotiation process?” Russian president Vladimir Putin asked his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday.

“As head of the foreign ministry, I must say there is always a chance,” Mr Lavrov replied. “Our possibilities are far from exhausted; they should not go on endlessly, of course, but at this stage I would propose continuing and intensifying them.”

Nato membership

Ukraine insisted on Monday that it will continue to strive for Nato membership, despite the issue being a major irritant for Russia.

Top Ukrainian officials rejected comments from the country’s ambassador to London, Vadym Prystaiko, in which he suggested Kyiv could be “flexible” on its Nato ambitions if “pushed to it” by the threat of a new, bigger attack by Russia.

“We would like Nato membership, which would ensure our security and territorial integrity, and this is also enshrined in Ukrainian legislation,” Mr Zelenskiy said after talks with Mr Scholz.

He said Mr Prystaiko’s words should be taken in the context of growing pressure on Ukraine from some quarters “maybe not to risk it, not to constantly raise this question of future membership of the alliance. Because these risks are linked to Russia’s reaction.”

Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba added: “Ukraine’s strategic course on joining Nato remains unchanged. It is enshrined in our constitution and national foreign policy strategy, supported by a growing majority of Ukrainians. It’s only up to Ukraine and thirty Nato allies to decide on the issue of membership.”

Mr Scholz said in Kyiv he wanted to “make clear during my talks with President Zelensky: Germany stands closely alongside Ukraine and supports it on the European path”.

“Should Russia violate the territorial integrity (of Ukraine), we and our partners know what to do,” he added, amid warnings from western powers that they are ready to impose sweeping and severe economic sanctions on Moscow if it launches a new attack on Ukraine.

Exercises

Mr Putin and his allies insist the forces now grouped near Ukraine – which include tanks, fighter jets, missile systems, warships and electronic warfare equipment – are merely on exercises and are not part of an attack force.

At the same time, Moscow says it is not satisfied with the West’s response to its security demands and claims Ukraine could be used as a staging ground for a US attack on Russia.

Mr Putin and Mr Scholz are expected to discuss the fate of the €9.7 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline to carry Russian gas directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea, which will bypass eastern Europe, deprive Ukraine of important fuel transit fees and, critics say, make it easier for Moscow to use energy flows as a political weapon against Kyiv.

The US has vowed to ensure that the pipeline never becomes operational if Russia launches a new attack on Ukraine, but Mr Scholz has not publicly stated Berlin’s position on the issue in recent weeks.

He said in Kyiv that “further military aggression against Ukraine will entail serious political, economic and geostrategic consequences for Russia. I will mention this tomorrow in Moscow as well.”

The British government, under heavy pressure at home, is playing a prominent role in western diplomacy around Ukraine and in supplying the country with anti-tank weapons.

“We are on an edge of a precipice but there is still time for President Putin to step back,” UK prime minister Boris Johnson tweeted on Monday. “We’re urging everybody to engage in dialogue and for the Russian government to avoid what would be a disastrous mistake for Russia.”

The US and several European states have begun withdrawing diplomats from Kyiv and urged their citizens to leave Ukraine, amid warnings from Washington and London that a new, large-scale attack by Russia could be imminent.

Irish warnings

Meanwhile, Ireland has followed the US, Germany and others in warning citizens to leave Ukraine.The Government has also advised Irish people in Ukraine to register with the embassy in Kyiv.

On Monday, the Department of Foreign Affairs said that the number of Irish citizens registered with the embassy in Kyiv has increased to 145 and this number may rise further over the coming days.

In common with the embassies of partner states, the Embassy of Ireland in Kyiv will remain open, with a small number of essential staff remaining. That situation will be kept under review. – Additional reporting Reuters