MOSCOW/KYIV, Feb 16 (Reuters) – Russia said more of its forces surrounding Ukraine were withdrawing on Wednesday but NATO said the troop buildup was continuing, questioning Moscow’s stated willingness to negotiate a solution to the crisis.
In Ukraine, where people raised flags and played the national anthem to show unity against fears of an invasion, the government said a cyber attack that hit the defence ministry was the worst of its kind that the country had seen. It pointed the finger towards Russia, which denied involvement.
The Russian defence ministry said its forces were pulling back after exercises in the southern and western military districts near Ukraine – part of a huge Russian build-up that was accompanied by demands for sweeping security guarantees from the United States and NATO.
It published video that it said showed tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled artillery units leaving the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
But a senior Western intelligence official said Russian military exercises were at their peak and the risk of Russian aggression against Ukraine would remain high for the rest of February.
“There are no credible signs at this point that there will be any kind of military de-escalation,” the official said on condition of anonymity, adding that Russia could still attack Ukraine “with essentially no, or little-to-no, warning”.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said a pullout would be welcome but that moving troops and tanks back and forth did not amount to proof it was really happening.
“We have not seen any withdrawal of Russian forces. And of course, that contradicts the message of diplomatic efforts,” Soltenberg said before a meeting of the alliance in Brussels. “What we see is that they have increased the number of troops and more troops are on their way. So, so far, no de-escalation.”
The Kremlin said NATO’s assessment was wrong. Moscow’s ambassador to Ireland said forces in western Russia would be back to their normal positions within three to four weeks.
World stockmarkets crept higher for the second day in a row and Russian shares and the rouble gained ground as investors welcomed the apparent easing in tension, despite the Western scepticism.
Russia says it never planned to attack Ukraine but wants to lay down “red lines” to prevent its neighbour from joining NATO, which it sees as a threat to its own security.
The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin was keen to negotiate with the United States, which has offered discussions on arms control and confidence-building measures while ruling out a veto on future NATO membership for Ukraine.
Russia has accused the United States and Britain of hysterical war propaganda after their repeated warnings of a possible attack and reports in some Western media that it would happen on Wednesday.
Both countries have cast doubt on whether the Russian troop pullback is for real, with U.S. President Joe Biden saying on Tuesday that more than 150,000 Russian troops were still massed near Ukraine’s borders and an invasion remained “distinctly possible”. Germany also said it wanted proof.
China, which has cultivated closer ties with Russia as both countries have come under increasing criticism from the West, accused the United States of “playing up the threat of warfare and creating tension”.
Military analysts say a key indicator of a significant pullback will be whether field hospitals and fuel stores are dismantled and units from Russia’s far east, which are taking part in huge exercises in Belarus this week, return to their bases thousands of miles away.
Russia security specialist Mark Galeotti said the absence of any Russian attack should not be interpreted as meaning that “Putin blinked”.
“Nothing has changed on the ground in any meaningful way. Putin could have invaded yesterday, he can still do so tomorrow,” he wrote on Twitter.
DAY OF UNITY
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he did not see any sign of a Russian troop withdrawal. “When the troops do withdraw everyone will see that.. but for now, it’s just a statement,” the BBC quoted him as saying during a visit to western Ukraine.
Zelenskiy designated Wednesday a patriotic holiday in response to Western media reports that Russia could invade on that day. “No one can love our home as we can. And only we, together, can protect our home,” he said earlier Read full story
The defence ministry said hackers were still bombarding its website and had succeeded in finding vulnerabilities in the programming code. Traffic was being rerouted to servers in the United States while the issue was being fixed, it said.
A senior Ukrainian security official said the only country that would be interested in such cyber attacks was Russia. The Kremlin denied that Russia was involved but said it was not surprised that Ukraine would blame Moscow.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had “taken note” of a request from Russia’s parliament on Tuesday for him to recognise the “independence” of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian government forces since 2014.
But he said that would not be line with the 2014-15 Minsk agreements aimed at ending the conflict, in which Ukraine says some 15,000 people have been killed.
The comment appeared to indicate that Putin would not rush into recognising the separatist areas but might keep such an option in reserve.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said such a step would undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty, violate international law, call into question Russia’s stated commitment to continue to engage in diplomacy and “necessitate a swift and firm response from the United States in full coordination with our Allies and partners”.
Photo – Courtesy of Russian Ministry of Defence