WASHINGTON: Prospects of de-escalation in the Ukraine crisis rose on Tuesday after Russia said it has pulled back some troops from the border, a claim that was received in US and Europe with a mix of skepticism and cautious optimism.
The Biden administration — which whipped up unprecedented levels of alarm suggesting that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent — and European leaders reacted cautiously to Moscow’s statement that it is ready for talks with US and NATO, even as Washington despatched Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to the region to stiffen the resolve of allies.
The White House also held a classified briefing for US Senators on the situation on Tuesday morning to forge a consensus amid divisions at home, with some pundits arguing that the US should agree to Russia’s demand to exclude Ukraine from NATO and focus its energies on China, which they say is the real threat. The Trumpian right wing is extremely skeptical of the Biden administration’s claims, with some of his supporters preferring to go with Moscow’s narrative that it is the US that is pushing Russia into a corner.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg meanwhile maintained that he has not seen any de-escalation on the ground, warning that Russia has in the past pulled back leaving military materiel in place for rapid use later. NATO, he said, would like to see a “significant and enduring withdrawal of forces, troops, and not least the heavy equipment.”
There was also skepticism from Ukraine, the country at the center of the global drama, with its foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeting, “On Russian statements regarding withdrawal of some forces from the Ukrainian border. We in Ukraine have a rule: we don’t believe what we hear, we believe what we see. If a real withdrawal follows these statements, we will believe in the beginning of a real de-escalation.”
But Russia, which has insisted at all times that it has no plans to invade Ukraine, needled Washington, its foreign minister Sergei Lavrov saying Russian troops were returning to base after drills as per plan, regardless of “who thinks what and who gets hysterical about it.
Moscow also accused the west of “information terrorism,” with its Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova tweeting, “February 15, 2022, will go down in history as the day Western war propaganda failed. Humiliated and destroyed without a single shot fired.”
US analysts believe the Russian moves over the past few weeks are aimed at forcing Washington and its European allies to the negotiating table in an effort to roll back NATO expansion, including scuppering moves to draft Ukraine into alliance, and getting US to remove strategic weapons that threaten Russia from NATO countries.
Speaking at the Kremlin after talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, Putin was transparent about his goals, saying Russia will continue to press Western countries to accept its demand that Ukraine be barred from NATO, as well as seek other “security guarantees.”


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