Russia says some troops are withdrawing from Ukraine border;  NATO chief notes

Biden said Russia has deployed more than 150,000 troops, significantly more than previous estimates of about 130,000. The President noted that “an invasion clearly remains a possibility.”

But Biden’s comments signaled a departure from his administration’s dire warnings of an invasion, which senior officials said just last week might be imminent.

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Earlier in the day, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he saw reason for “cautious optimism” after Moscow signaled its willingness to continue talks to resolve the Ukraine crisis and said some of its troops would be withdrawing.

The NATO chief added he saw no evidence “on the ground” of a de-escalation by the Russian military. Stoltenberg said NATO is seeking a “significant and permanent” withdrawal of Russian forces, troops and heavy equipment from areas bordering Ukraine as a sign of real de-escalation.

“There are signs from Moscow that diplomacy should continue,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels ahead of meetings with NATO defense ministers on Wednesday. “There is cause for cautious optimism.”

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After Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled on Monday that he was open to diplomacy, Moscow sent a barrage of conflicting signals on Tuesday – announcing that some Russian forces would be sent home after exercises were complete, despite major military exercises nearby of Ukraine were continued.

In a joint press conference on Tuesday with the visiting German Chancellor, Putin said Russia’s military leadership had made “a decision on a partial withdrawal of troops” from areas where military exercises were taking place.

Putin also maintained Russia’s harsh rhetoric and military pressure on Ukraine, accusing the Ukrainians – which has become a common and false charge – of committing “genocide” in two Russian-backed separatist zones in eastern Ukraine. He also said Ukraine broke a 2015 deal to bring peace to that region. US and European officials say Russia has failed to meet its obligations under the deal.

In an ongoing spate of diplomatic activity, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov by phone on Tuesday, and President Biden spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron, U.S. officials said.

As senior leaders debated the crisis, some websites in Ukraine were attacked, adding to tensions.

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The Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security of the Ukrainian government said on its Telegram account that the Ukrainian bank Privatbank – one of the most widely used retail banks in Ukraine – was facing a “massive DDoS attack” preventing customers from making payments afford and use online banking. DDoS or “Distributed Denial of Service” occurs when a website is inundated with traffic, causing it to go offline.

Some users of the bank’s app reported problems with payments, the government center said, and couldn’t log in, while others couldn’t see their balances and recent transactions. Customers were told their funds were safe and that the attack was limited to the app.

Another popular Ukrainian bank, Oschadbank, also faced problems as its internet banking was down, and SberBank’s online banking systems were also not working, the center said. Ukraine’s defense ministry and armed forces’ websites were also attacked, the center said.

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Later on Tuesday, another Ukrainian government agency said that Privatbank and Oschadbank’s “web resources” had “resumed”.

Analysts have warned that Russian cyberattacks could precede a conventional military attack, but it wasn’t immediately clear who was behind the attacks on the Ukrainian websites.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on February 15 that this footage shows some of the units returning to their bases after military exercises near Ukraine. (Reuters)

In his press conference with Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin said Russia does not want war and is ready to discuss Russia’s demands for security guarantees with the United States and NATO, but only if the talks focus on its main concerns. These include Moscow’s calls for an end to NATO expansion and the withdrawal of NATO forces and equipment from Eastern Europe.

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Russia’s next steps will depend on how Washington and NATO react, Putin said.

“But we will strive to reach an agreement with our partners on the issues we have raised in order to resolve them diplomatically,” Putin said. He warned that Moscow would not prolong the discussions.

Scholz said NATO expansion was not on the agenda, but Putin countered that the alliance might later include Ukraine.

“Therefore, we want to resolve this issue peacefully now, now, in the near future, during negotiations,” Putin said.

“We’ve been told for 30 years that NATO will not expand an inch toward Russia’s borders, and today we see NATO infrastructure right on our doorstep,” he said.

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Scholz said he agrees with Putin that “the diplomatic options are far from exhausted” and called the withdrawal of some troops reported on Tuesday a “good sign”.

US officials have warned that Putin has the last military pieces in position to launch a full-scale attack within days if he decides to do so.

Julianne Smith, the US Permanent Representative to NATO, said the US had also taken note of the reports of Russian withdrawals but needed to “verify that this is indeed the case”.

“These reports have just come out. We will assess the situation, we will work to verify this and we will continue from there,” she told reporters at a briefing in Brussels.

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“Today and in the last few days we have seen no signs of de-escalation,” said another Western official from a NATO member state, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with the country’s ground rules.

Russia’s military said Tuesday more than 30 of its naval vessels are conducting a live-fire exercise in the Black Sea with aircraft involved in preparation for a “major” naval exercise that would be overseen by the Russian naval commander.

There were also announcements about exercises in other regions: Russian warplanes armed with Kinzhal hypersonic missiles and long-range bombers flew more than 900 miles to be stationed at Russia’s Hmeimim base in Syria ahead of Russian exercises in the Mediterranean, the military said. In addition, 20 Northern Fleet ships drilled during exercises in the Barents Sea.

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However, the military also announced that some units from Russia’s Western Military District and Southern Military District were loading equipment onto railroad cars to return to base after military exercises were completed, in line with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s report to Putin on Monday that some exercises had ended and others would end soon.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said on February 14 that Russia is “doing all the things one would expect” ahead of a possible invasion of Ukraine. (The Washington Post)

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine will wait and see whether Russia is serious about withdrawing its forces before concluding that Russia is moving towards de-escalation.

“Russia keeps making different statements, so we have one rule: we believe it when we see it, not when we hear about it. We will believe in de-escalation when we see their retreat,” Kuleba told reporters in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

After a military buildup on Ukraine’s border last spring, Russia withdrew its forces but left significant amounts of military hardware in place, according to Ukrainian officials.

Kiev remained calm and open for business on Tuesday. Although there was no panic, more and more foreigners decided to leave the country. Robert Grant, 57, an American banker, was on his way to the airport for a flight to Montreal on Tuesday.

He doesn’t predict an invasion, but his wife, a Ukrainian surgeon, is pregnant, and they decided to leave, just in case.

“I don’t want to have a baby in a war zone,” said Grant, who has lived in Ukraine for almost 30 years. “We were planning on leaving to have the baby anyway, but we’ve decided to leave now.” He estimated half her friends were making similar calculations. Ukrainian families also moved west or to summer homes in the Carpathians.

Hendrix reported from Kiev, Harris from Washington, Pannett from Sydney and Rauhala from Brussels. Loveday Morris in Berlin, Missy Ryan in Washington and David Stern in Lviv, Ukraine contributed to this report.