Russia announced further troop withdrawals from the Ukrainian border on Thursday even as Washington insisted Moscow was continuing to build up forces for a possible invasion of its pro-Western neighbor.
After the previously announced withdrawals earlier this week, the United States, NATO and Ukraine all said they had seen no evidence of backsliding.
The Russian Defense Ministry said units from the Southern Military District were returning to bases from Crimea annexed to Moscow, and tank units from the Western Military District had left on a military train for their bases 1,000 kilometers away. He did not provide details on the specific number of troops or equipment involved.
Western officials say Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops and significant military hardware near Ukraine’s borders in preparation for a possible invasion, which Washington says could come “at any time”.
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Russia said “large-scale” military exercises were taking place in various regions, including near Ukraine, but provided no specific figures and repeatedly denied plans for an attack. Troop buildups and Western threats to respond to an invasion with painful economic sanctions have raised tensions between Moscow and the West to their highest level since the end of the Cold War.
Intense diplomatic efforts, including repeated meetings and phone calls between President Vladimir Putin and Western leaders, have done little to ease the crisis.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who was due to travel to Kyiv on Thursday, warned that the crisis risked becoming “a common plague”. Moscow “could drag this out for much longer in a brazen ploy to spend weeks – if not months – more overthrowing Ukraine and challenging Western unity,” she wrote in the The telegraph of the day.
A senior White House official said Wednesday that Russian announcements of withdrawal were “false”, accusing Moscow of increasing its presence at the border by “up to 7,000 troops”.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and other Western officials also said they saw no signs of a pullout, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Kiev had seen only “small rotations” that meant nothing. no real change.
Presiding over a national “Day of Unity” which he declared on Wednesday, Zelenskyy watched Ukrainian soldiers train with new anti-tank weapons supplied by the West and visited the frontline town of Mariupol. “We are not afraid of anyone, of any enemy,” Zelenskyy said. “We will defend ourselves.”
Russian officials have accused the West of causing “hysteria” with allegations of a planned invasion.
Even Ukrainian officials have warned that some Western moves — including the US moving its embassy from Kiev to the western city of Lviv — are unwarranted and helping to sow panic.
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On the border of Ukraine and Belarus, where Russian and Belarusian forces are conducting major joint exercises, residents feared they would be caught in the middle of a great power clash. “The Ukrainians were able to start something, thanks to the Americans and the British, who brought all their weapons here,” said 87-year-old Lidiya Silina. AFP in his green wooden hut near the border. “For them, Ukraine is just a battleground with Russia.”
The joint exercises in Belarus, which the United States says involves some 30,000 Russian troops, are scheduled to end on Sunday.
Russia insists its forces will return to their bases after the drills, so a significant withdrawal early next week could set the stage for the crisis to ease. Russia has blamed the West for causing the tensions, saying Washington and its European allies have ignored Moscow’s security concerns on its doorstep for too long.
Putin demanded that Ukraine be forever barred from realizing its hopes of joining NATO and that the alliance cancel its deployments near Russia’s borders. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday that Moscow would send a response to US proposals on European security later in the day.
European Union leaders, already gathered in Brussels for a summit with their African counterparts, were due to hold impromptu crisis talks on Russia and Ukraine on Thursday. A meeting of the UN Security Council is also scheduled for Thursday to discuss the crisis.
US Vice President Kamala Harris will also meet with Zelenskyy on the sidelines of the annual Munich security conference this weekend, a senior White House official said.
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