U.S. says no proof of Russian troop pullback as Ukraine crisis drags on

Wednesday came and went without a rumored invasion of Ukraine, but Russia still hasn’t delivered on its promise to begin withdrawing thousands of troops and cool the simmering crisis along the two countries’ border, U.S. officials said.

A day after President Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, said diplomacy and negotiation were their preferred plans, administration officials publicly took Moscow to task for what they said was a failure to match promises with actions. Russian military officials said earlier this week that with major military exercises in Belarus and Crimea ending, troops and equipment would be sent home and away from a border region on the verge of becoming ground zero for a major war in Eastern Europe.

U.S. and NATO officials said they have not seen any movement away from the border, and the more than 100,000 Russian troops and the flotilla of Russian naval vessels surrounding Ukraine on three sides are still poised to launch an invasion at a moment’s notice.

Not only has Russia failed to begin its promised pullback, a senior U.S. official told the Associated Press late Wednesday that Russia has sent another 7,000 troops to border areas near Ukraine. Some of those forces arrived on Wednesday, long after the Kremlin first said it would begin a drawdown.

“We continue to see critical units moving toward the border, not away from the border,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NBC News. “There’s what Russia says, and then there’s what Russia does. We haven’t seen any pullback of its forces.

“It would be good if they followed through on what they said, but so far, we haven’t seen it,” he said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that he had not seen any withdrawal of troops.

“If they really start to withdraw forces, that’s something we will welcome, but that remains to be seen,” he said.

Mr. Putin and his aides deny any plans for military action and accuse Washington of fanning war hysteria. Still, the Kremlin insists that the U.S. and NATO agree to its demands to bar Ukraine from ever joining the Western military alliance and for a broad pullback of NATO forces and weaponry from the tense border with Russia in Eastern Europe.

Mr. Stoltenberg spoke shortly before a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is attending that gathering as part of an effort to project Western solidarity in the face of Moscow’s saber-rattling. The U.S. and its European partners have vowed to impose crushing economic sanctions on Moscow should it send forces into Ukraine.

After a long military buildup and multiple threats against the Western-backed government in Kyiv, defense officials say, Mr. Putin has all the necessary assets in place to launch a major invasion at any time.

The Kremlin has denied it is plotting any such move. Russian officials openly mocked the U.S. and its allies for intelligence assessments that pegged Wednesday as the day a military strike was likely to begin. The Biden administration has been aggressively releasing intelligence to the press that it says shows the Kremlin is preparing to justify a war.

“I’d like to request U.S. and British disinformation: Bloomberg, The New York Times and The Sun media outlets to publish the schedule for our upcoming invasions for the year. I’d like to plan my vacation,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a social media post, according to the state-run Tass news agency.

In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy proclaimed Wednesday as a “day of unity” and urged citizens to rally in the streets with Ukrainian flags. 

“We are united by a desire to happily live in peace,” he said in a public address. “We can defend our home only if we stay united.”

Mr. Zelenskyy said “it’s too early to rejoice” with respect to Russia’s claim that it will begin pulling back troops, even as the Russian Defense Ministry released video purportedly showing military assets leaving regions near the Ukrainian border.

Kyiv has been unnerved at times by the U.S. warnings that war may be imminent, but Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said he had received no reports confirming a Russian pullback. He told the Reuters news agency that the combined strength of Russian military and pro-Russian separatist forces near Ukraine’s borders stood at about 140,000.

Russia has said that a series of military drills in Belarus is coming to a close this weekend and that troops participating in those exercises will return to their permanent stations in Russia

About 30,000 Russian troops are deployed in Belarus. The massive Allied Resolve 2022 military maneuvers have been unnerving for Western governments because thousands of Russian troops and sophisticated weapons are operating near a border just 40 miles from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will travel to Moscow on Friday to meet with Mr. Putin, according to the official Belarusian BelTA press agency. The fate of Russian troops in Belarus will be high on the agenda.

The West “is shouting: ‘When will the troops be withdrawn?’” the longtime Belarusian leader said this week. “Listen, this is our business with Putin. We will meet in the near future and schedule the withdrawal of the armed forces of the Russian Federation from here.”

Russia has tools beyond the military to chip away at Ukrainian sovereignty. Lawmakers have mounted a renewed push on Mr. Putin to formally recognize two Kremlin-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as fully independent states.

“Enactment of this resolution would further undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Mr. Blinken said in a statement Wednesday. 

It would constitute a “gross violation of international law” and call into question Russia’s stated commitments to seek a peaceful resolution of the crisis, he said.

• David R. Sands and Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

Similar Posts