Moscow: President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Russia does not want a war in Europe, but described the situation in east Ukraine`s breakaway regions as “genocide” and called for the conflict there to be resolved through the Minsk peace progress.
At a joint news conference after talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin said Russia had decided to partially withdraw troops from near Ukraine and saw some room for further discussion with the West on Moscow`s security demands.
Putin, however, said that there had not been a constructive response to Russia`s demands.
Meanwhile, Russia on Tuesday said that some of its troops were returning to base after exercises near Ukraine and mocked Western warnings about a looming invasion, but NATO said it had yet to see any evidence of a de-escalation that could avert a military conflict.
Russia did not say how many units were being withdrawn, and how far, after a build-up of some 130,000 Russian troops to the north, east and south of Ukraine that has triggered one of the worst crises in relations with the West since the Cold War.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said after meeting President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin that the withdrawal of some Russian troops was a good sign.
Others were more cautious. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “the intelligence that we`re seeing today is still not encouraging”, and Ukraine said the reported pullback needed to be seen to be believed.
“If we see a withdrawal, we will believe in a de-escalation,” Interfax Ukraine quoted Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba as saying.
NATO`s chief welcomed signals from Russia in the past two days that it may be looking for a diplomatic solution but urged Moscow to demonstrate its will to act. “There are signs from Moscow that diplomacy should continue. This gives grounds for cautious optimism. But so far we have not seen any sign of de-escalation on the ground from the Russian side,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters.
He said Russia often left military equipment behind after exercises, creating the potential for forces to regroup. At a joint news conference with Scholz, Putin referred only briefly to the troop moves and did not go into details.
Russia has always denied planning to invade Ukraine, saying it can exercise troops on its own territory as it sees fit. It has been pressing for a set of security guarantees from the West, including a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO.
Putin told reporters Russia would not be satisfied with the talk that the former Soviet republic was not ready to join any time soon and was demanding that the issue be resolved now. “As for war in Europe…about whether we want it or not? Of course not. That is why we put forward proposals for a negotiation process, the result of which should be an agreement on ensuring equal security for everyone, including our country,” he said.
Scholz said the diplomatic possibilities were far from exhausted. “For us Germans but also Europeans, sustainable security can only be reached .. with Russia. Therefore it should be possible to find a solution. No matter how difficult and serious the situation seems to be, I refuse to say it is hopeless,” he said.
Russian Parliament asks Putin to recognise breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent
In a separate development, Russia`s lower house of parliament voted to ask Putin to recognise two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent.
Recognition of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People`s Republics could kill off the Minsk peace process in east Ukraine, where a conflict between government forces and Moscow-backed separatists has killed 15,000 people.
Asked about the move, Putin said the regions` problems should be solved on the basis of the Minsk agreements, which were signed in 2014 and 2015 but have never been implemented. Scholz said all sides should stick to those accords.
‘COULD BE IMMINENT’
Russia`s show of force near Ukraine`s borders has prompted months of frantic Western diplomacy and drawn threats of severe sanctions if it invades, culminating in a crescendo of U.S. and British warnings in recent days that this could happen at any time.
“In terms of the timing of an attack, it could be imminent,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Tuesday. She said Russian troops could reach Ukraine`s capital Kyiv “very, very quickly”.
France said it had yet to confirm the return of some troops to bases, though this would be a positive sign.
Russian shares, government bonds and the rouble, which have been hit by fears of impending conflict, rose sharply, and Ukrainian government bonds also rallied. Oil dropped more than 3% from a seven-year high reached on Monday.
The Kremlin sought to portray the moves as proof that Western talk of war had been both false and hysterical. “February 15, 2022 will go down in history as the day Western war propaganda failed. Humiliated and destroyed without a single shot fired,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
Russia`s defence ministry published footage showing tanks and other armoured vehicles being loaded onto railway flatcars. But Western military analysts said they needed more information to judge the significance of the latest troop movements.
“One should maintain an air of cautious scepticism,” said Henry Boyd of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “There have been past discrepancies between Russia`s official announcements and its actions on the ground.”
Konrad Muzyka, director of the Poland-based Rochan consultancy, told Reuters it would take several days to verify the latest moves via satellite imagery.
“It should also be noted that new trains with equipment from Central Russia keep on arriving near the border and that Russian forces continue to move towards staging areas. The announcement stands in direct opposition to what Russia has been doing for the past few days,” he said.
Commercial satellite images taken on Sunday and Monday showed a flurry of Russian military activity at several locations near Ukraine, includig large deployments of troops and attack helicopters, and warplanes moving to forward locations.