Russia says some troops leaving Ukraine’s border as hopes for diplomacy rise

A Russian defence ministry photo of tanks standing ready to move back to their permanent base after drills in Russia. Photograph: Russian Defence Ministry Press Service via AP


Moscow has said it is withdrawing some troops from the Ukrainian border and is ready to continue talks with the West on security issues, even as Russia’s parliament urged the Kremlin to recognise the independence of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.

The Russian military did not reveal how many soldiers were returning to base after completing exercises on Tuesday, but western analysts say Moscow has massed some 130,000 soldiers and heavy weaponry to the north, south and east of Ukraine.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz said he welcomed the “positive signal and we hope more will follow” as he held talks in Russia, which insists it is not planning a new attack on Ukraine and accuses the West of spreading “war propaganda”.

After meeting Mr Scholz, Russian president Vladimir Putin said his country was ready to discuss a range of security issues with the West but was still determined to secure its main demands: a ban on Ukraine joining Nato and on the alliance stationing weaponry in eastern Europe.

“As for war in Europe . . . about whether we want it or not? Of course not. That is why we put forward proposals for a negotiation process, the result of which should be an agreement on ensuring equal security for everyone, including our country,” Mr Putin said.

“We are ready to work further together. We are ready to go down the track of negotiations,” he added.

Mr Scholz said “dialogue cannot hit a dead-end, that would be a disaster for everyone . . . it is important to go the road of diplomacy so as to avoid war in Europe.”

“For us Germans but also for Europeans, sustainable security can only be reached . . with Russia,” he added.

‘Cautious optimism’

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said he saw “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.”

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President Joe Biden said later on Tuesday that the US had “not yet verified” Russia’s claim that some of its forces have withdrawn, adding an invasion of Ukraine remains a distinct possibility.

Defence ministers of Nato member countries are set to meet on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss how to respond to the crisis, with options including sending more troops to countries such as Bulgaria and Romania to reinforce the alliance’s eastern flank.

Ukraine reacted sceptically to Russia’s claim that it is wihdrawing some forces. “We in Ukraine have a rule: we don’t believe what we hear, we believe what we see,” Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba. “If a real withdrawal follows these statements, we will believe in the beginning of a real de-escalation.”

Military analysts noted that trucks and trains of military equipment still appeared to be travelling through Russia towards Ukraine, and noted that after previous war games the Russian army had left heavy weaponry in position within striking distance of the Ukrainian border, which could sharply increase the speed of any future offensive operation.

Russian deputies supported a resolution on Tuesday calling on Mr Putin to recognise the independence of the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk – swathes of Ukraine’s Donbas area that have been held by Moscow-led separatists since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and started a proxy war that has now claimed 14,000 lives.

Russia has distributed some 700,000 passports to residents of the breakaway regions and claimed the right to defend its citizens anywhere – raising concerns that it might pour troops into an area where Mr Putin claims, without offering evidence, that Ukraine is committing “genocide” against Russian-speakers.

Minsk accords

Mr Putin said that at least for now he would not back their independence claim, but instead continue to support the so-called Minsk accords – a moribund framework peace deal – as the best way to end the conflict.

“Recognition [of the regions] will have no legal implications. Russia will not succeed at masking the Russian occupation administration in the temporarily occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk regions as ‘independent entities’, or to disguise its own involvement as a party to the armed conflict in Donbas,” said Ukraine’s foreign ministry.

“Instead . . . it will have much broader, destructive consequences for the international rule of law and the global security architecture. Therefore, Russia has a choice: embark on the path of de-escalation and diplomatic dialogue or experience decisive consolidated response by the international community.

Mr Putinand Mr Scholz discussed the security crisis and Nord Stream 2, a €9.7 billion Baltic Sea pipeline to take Russian gas directly to Germany, which is yet to be launched and could be scuppered by sweeping sanctions that the West vows to impose on Moscow if it attacks Ukraine again.

Russian president Vladimir Putin meeting German chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Kremlin in Moscow. Photograph: Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Sputnik

“This is one of Europe’s largest infrastructure projects, aimed at significantly strengthening energy security on the continent . . . I have said more than once that this project is purely commercial, and that there are no politics, nor any political tinge, here,” Mr Putin said.

Critics of Nord Stream 2, including several central and eastern European states, say it will allow Russia to reduce or cut energy flows through their region to exert political pressure on governments while maintaining supplies to Germany and other lucrative markets in western Europe. The loss of gas transit fees through pipelines that cross Ukraine would also be a blow to the country’s fragile economy.

Ukraine accuses Moscow of waging an undeclared war using not only military means but through propaganda, disinformation, the economy and the internet; the country’s defence ministry and at least two banks suffered a cyberattack on Tuesday, but the culprit was not immediately identified.

Coveney call

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that while reports of “a move towards de-escalation on the ground – if confirmed – were welcome, it is urgent that Russia de-escalate, abide by international law and engage constructively in dialogue”.

He said his department was still advising Irish nationals not to travel to Ukraine and urged any Irish citizens in Ukraine who had not done so to register with the embassy in Kyiv.

The department is in direct and ongoing contact with 114 citizens who have registered. Mr Coveney said any citizens in the country “should leave now using available commercial options”.

Officials remain in close contact with families who have surrogacy arrangements in Ukraine and are continuing to provide support and assistance to them individually, the department said.