As Russia welcomes talks, Biden warns invasion still possible

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin said on Tuesday that Russia would “partially withdraw troops” deployed near Ukraine and seek a “dip...


MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin said on Tuesday that Russia would “partially withdraw troops” deployed near Ukraine and seek a “diplomatic route” to resolve a tense standoff with the West, while President Biden is is welcomed the continuation of negotiations but warned that a Russian invasion “remains very much a possibility”.

It was the second day in a row that Moscow appeared to be walking away from confrontation over Ukraine, after saying on Monday that diplomatic options were “far from exhausted.”

“We intend and we will strive to reach an agreement with our partners on the issues we have raised, in order to resolve them through diplomatic channels,” Putin said, alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Kremlin.

Putin’s willingness to continue talks was hailed hours later by President Biden, who vowed in an afternoon speech from the White House to “give diplomacy every chance” to prevent a Russian invasion.

“As long as there is hope for a diplomatic resolution that prevents the use of force and avoids the incredible human suffering that would ensue,” Mr Biden said, “we will pursue it.”

Mr Biden, however, warned that Russian forces remain “in a threatening position” – an assessment that echoes the dire warning issued by the Pentagon just four days ago that Russia could launch an attack as early as Wednesday.

The urgency of that warning seemed to fade on Tuesday as Mr Putin adopted a more conciliatory tone and announced his intention to withdraw his troops. But much of Russia’s threatening force near the Ukrainian border remained in place, and Western officials said it was far too early to exude danger that Mr Putin could start a full-scale war. They also said it was too early to assess Moscow’s claim that it was pulling troops from the Ukrainian border.

“The Russian Ministry of Defense announced today that some military units are leaving positions near Ukraine. That would be good,” Biden said. “But we haven’t verified that yet.”

The Biden administration has threatened harsh economic sanctions in the event of an invasion, while offering negotiations on some of Russia’s security concerns.

The carrot-and-stick approach and mixed signals from Moscow, illustrated the game and the high-stakes rhetorical tactics that marked the Russian troop build-up crisis. The United States has declassified intelligence on Russia’s plans and issued urgent warnings of an impending attack, in what US officials describe as a strategy to deter Mr Putin from carrying out an invasion.

Mr Putin, by contrast, has kept his true intentions a mystery, mixing military threats and moves with optimistic assessments of the potential for diplomacy – statements that have intensified in recent days. Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov spoke with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Tuesday and said the West had “reacted positively” to Russia’s moves.

At the same time, the Russian leader and other senior officials made it clear on Tuesday that they see the military threat as a tool to force the West to recognize a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe – and that were ready to keep the pressure on as negotiations continued.

Mr. Lavrov said he was open to American proposals such as negotiations on the placement of missiles in Europe; the result, he said, could be a “complete and very decent result”.

Asked on Tuesday how Russia would act next, Mr Putin replied with a slight smile: “According to the plan”.

He said Russia would seek to achieve its key objectives – centered on halting NATO expansion and forcing the alliance to reduce its military presence in Eastern Europe – peacefully, but that the outcome of the process “does not depend only on us”.

US officials dismissed those demands as non-starters, and speaking from the East Room of the White House, Mr Biden vowed not to ‘sacrifice the basic principles’ that grant countries the right to choose their own alliances .

The president also reached out to the Russian people, after warning that a war would cause great human suffering. “The United States and NATO are not a threat to Russia,” he said, adding, “You are not our enemy.”

Despite Tuesday’s optimism, the diplomatic path forward was far from clear. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it would soon send and make public a 10-page response to the security proposals the United States and NATO submitted last month. Italy’s foreign minister was due to travel to Moscow on Wednesday.

But beyond that, after a flurry of high-level Western phone calls and meetings with Mr. Putin and Mr. Lavrov, the diplomatic calendar appeared empty. Russia said it would skip the Munich Security Conference this weekend, which had been a landmark annual event for Western officials to sit down with their Russian counterparts.

“We don’t know what will happen next and how things will continue,” Mr. Scholz said after meeting for three hours with Mr. Putin. “But we can definitely say: there are enough starting points for things to develop well.”

Russia is demanding guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO, which alliance leaders describe as nothing more than a distant prospect that is not currently under consideration. Ukrainian officials suggested this week that their country’s constitutionally entrenched aspiration to join NATO could be negotiated in order to avoid war.

Scholz, who took office as chancellor in December, hinted that finding an agreement between Russia, Ukraine and NATO on this issue could be a way out of the crisis.

“Everyone needs to take a step back here and make it clear that we simply cannot have a possible military conflict over an issue that is not on the agenda,” Scholz told reporters. Germans in Moscow after leaving the Kremlin. “It is now up to us to find a path that suits everyone in terms of positions and opinions.”

The White House warned last week that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen “at any time”, including before the end of the Winter Olympics on February 20.

On Tuesday, Russia seemed to relish the chance to prove the United States wrong. A Defense Ministry spokesperson issued a statement saying some troops near Ukraine had “completed their tasks” and were returning to their bases; state television broadcast images of tanks being loaded onto wagons.

Shortly after, Mr Lavrov predicted that the West would soon take credit for averting an invasion that Russia had in fact never planned, while Mr Putin’s spokesman said that the president had started to jokingly ask “if the exact time when the war will start has been published anywhere.

Western officials said it was too early to say whether the announced withdrawal would reduce the threat to Ukraine’s borders, but in Brussels Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, said signals from Moscow were prompting to “cautious optimism”.

But it was also clear that Mr. Putin could keep the pressure on the West and on Ukraine unchecked, including through new military moves or other means like cyberattacks. On Tuesday evening, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry and the military, as well as the interfaces of the country’s two largest banks, were hit by cyberattacks that brought down some websites and caused problems for customers seeking to withdraw money.

And in Moscow, the Kremlin-controlled lower house of parliament, the State Duma, gave Mr Putin another bargaining chip by voting to ask him to recognize Russian-backed separatist territories in the east. of Ukraine as independent states. Such a move would open the door for Russia to officially move its troops to the region and could trigger further fighting because these unrecognized states claim more territory than they currently control.

During his press conference with Mr Scholz, Mr Putin repeated unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine was committing “genocide” against Russian speakers in the region, known as Donbass, but indicated that he would not would not immediately recognize the independence of the territories.

Instead, Mr Putin said he would continue to push for the implementation of the Minsk Peace Accords negotiated by Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France in 2015. In their Russian interpretation, the agreements would effectively exclude Ukraine’s NATO membership by allowing Russian-backed proxies in the east of Ukraine to veto foreign policy decisions.

In Ukraine, concerns about a possible Russian invasion remained.

“When we see the withdrawal, we will believe in de-escalation,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters.

Western officials and analysts said the threat to Ukraine remained significant and it was too early to draw firm conclusions on a possible withdrawal without more information on the units being returned to their bases. The Russian Defense Ministry has only announced a withdrawal of units from the western and southern military districts of the country, whose usual bases are closest to Ukraine, so that the units can easily return to the border region.

Units from the central and eastern districts, which are among the most advanced in Russia, remain deployed and have deployed in recent days in attack formations in positions a few tens of kilometers from the Ukrainian border, according to reports. satellite images.

“I wouldn’t read much into it yet,” Rob Lee, a Russian military expert, said of Moscow’s statement that it was withdrawing its troops.

Mr. Lee, a United States Marine Corps veteran and Ph.D. candidate at King’s College London, and others have noted that Russia has in the past announced troop withdrawals only to leave weapons and equipment in place for easy redeployment. It did so after a similar buildup near Ukraine last April as well as after major military exercises in late summer.

Anton Troyanovsky reported from Moscow and Michael D. Shear from Washington. The report was provided by Valerie Hopkins and Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, Ukraine; Michael Schwirtz from Kherson, Ukraine; Steven Erlanger from Brussels; and Katrin Bennhold from Berlin.

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Newsrust - US Top News: As Russia welcomes talks, Biden warns invasion still possible
As Russia welcomes talks, Biden warns invasion still possible
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