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Biden says U.S. has not verified a pullback of Russian troops from Ukraine’s border, despite Moscow’s claims

On Feb. 15, President Biden said that U.S. analysis shows that Russian military units “remain very much in a threatening position” on the border of Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

In a national address from the White House on Tuesday, President Biden said the United States has not yet determined that some Russian military units are moving back from the border of Ukraine and returning to their bases, despite claims by senior Russian officials.

But amid a flurry of mixed signals from Moscow, leaders in Washington and Europe were cautiously optimistic that war may have been averted, at least for now.

“That would be good” if Russia has moved back its forces, Biden said, “but we have not yet verified that.” “Indeed,” he cautioned, “our analysts indicate that they remain very much in a threatening position.” Biden said that Russia had more than 150,000 troops around Ukraine, up significantly from some previous estimates of about 130,000, and noted that “an invasion remains distinctly possible.”

Biden’s remarks were a shift, however, from his administration’s most dire warnings, with national security adviser Jake Sullivan saying last week that a Russian attack could be imminent.

Biden reiterated that Russia would face potentially crippling sanctions and that a planned pipeline to bring natural gas to Germany “will not happen” if Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces into Ukraine.

Biden appeared confident the opposing sides could find a diplomatic exit from the crisis. He said he spoke with Putin over the weekend “to make clear that we are ready to keep pursuing high-level diplomacy to reach written understandings among Russia, the United States and the nations of Europe to address legitimate security concerns, if that’s his wish.”

Biden noted that the Russians stated their willingness to continue talks. “I agree,” he said. “We should give the diplomacy every chance to succeed. And I believe there are real ways to address our respective security concerns.”

Biden also reiterated his pledge not to send U.S. military service members to fight in Ukraine.

Earlier in the day, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels that, while he saw no evidence of a “significant and enduring” withdrawal of Russian forces that would signal Moscow was ratcheting down tensions, “there are signs from Moscow that diplomacy should continue.”

After Putin signaled Monday that he was open to diplomacy, Moscow announced that some Russian forces were being sent home after completing drills, even as major military exercises continued near Ukraine.

In a joint news conference Tuesday with the visiting German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, Putin said Russia’s military leadership “made a decision about partial withdrawal of troops” from the areas where military exercises were taking place.

The Russian military announced that some units from its Western Military District and Southern Military District were loading equipment onto rail cars to return to base after completing military exercises, in line with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s report to Putin on Monday that some drills were ending and others would end soon.

Putin also maintained Russia’s tough rhetoric and military pressure on Ukraine, accusing the Ukrainians — in what has become a frequent and false charge — of committing “genocide” in two Russian-backed separatist zones in eastern Ukraine. He also said Ukraine had breached a 2015 deal to bring peace to that region. U.S. and European officials say Russia has not honored its commitments under the deal.

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

As senior leaders discussed the crisis, some banking and government websites in Ukraine came under attack, adding to tensions. Some online functions were interrupted at Privatbank — one of the most widely used retail banks in Ukraine — and at Oschadbank, but the services were restored, Ukrainian security officials said.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry and armed forces’ websites were also attacked. Analysts have warned that Russian cyberattacks could precede a conventional military attack, but it was not immediately clear who was behind the attacks on the Ukrainian websites.

Biden also said that “if Russia attacks the United States or our allies through … disruptive cyber attacks against our companies or critical infrastructure, we are prepared to respond.”

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

In his news conference with Scholz, Putin said Russia does not want war and is willing to talk to the United States and NATO about Russia’s demands for security guarantees, but only if its key concerns are central to negotiations. Those include Moscow’s calls for an end to NATO expansion and the removal of NATO forces and equipment from Eastern Europe.

Russia’s next moves will depend on how Washington and NATO respond, Putin said.

“But we will strive to reach an agreement with our partners about the matters that were raised by us to resolve them diplomatically,” Putin said. He warned that Moscow would not allow the discussions to be drawn out endlessly.

The United States and NATO have said the alliance’s open-door policy is nonnegotiable, but they have offered proposals on arms control and limiting military exercises while setting up mechanisms for greater transparency in the NATO-Russia relationship.

Scholz said NATO’s enlargement was not on the agenda, but Putin countered that the alliance might admit Ukraine down the line.

“That’s why we want to resolve this matter now, right now, in the near future, during negotiations, by peaceful means,” Putin said.

“We have been told for 30 years that NATO is not going to expand a single inch toward Russia’s borders, and today we see NATO infrastructure right on our doorstep,” he said.

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

Russia’s military said Tuesday that more than 30 of its naval vessels were carrying out a live-fire exercise in the Black Sea, with aircraft taking part, in preparation for a “major” naval exercise that would be supervised by Russia’s naval commander.

There were also announcements about drills in other regions: Russian fighter jets armed with Kinzhal hypersonic missiles and long-range bombers flew more than 900 miles to deploy at Russia’s Hmeimim base in Syria ahead of Russian drills in the Mediterranean Sea, the military said. Additionally, 20 Northern Fleet ships were involved in Barents Sea exercises.

In an annual assessment, Estonia’s foreign intelligence service noted that “military pressure” and “threats of war” have become key foreign policy tools for Russia. Even if the current crisis abates, the report said, Estonia and other Western countries “must prepare for increasingly sustained military pressure from Russia.”

Estonia also estimated that Russia has mobilized 150,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, marking the “single largest military buildup by Russia in the past 30 years.” The Estonian assessment also warned of the possibility that Russia will continue to maintain a rotating force group on Belarusian territory, which borders three NATO nations. “This would harm the wider security situation in the Baltic Sea region and for NATO, reducing the preparation time for an attack against the Baltic states,” the assessment said.

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

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine would wait to see whether Russia was serious about drawing down its forces before concluding that Russia was moving to de-escalate.

“Russia keeps making statements of various kinds, so we have a rule: We believe it when we see it, not when we hear about it. We will believe de-escalation when we see their withdrawal,” Kuleba told journalists in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.

After a military buildup on Ukraine’s borders last spring, Russia withdrew its forces but left significant amounts of military equipment in place, Ukrainian officials noted.

Kyiv remained quiet and open for business Tuesday. While there was no sense of panic, an increasing number of foreign residents were deciding to leave. Robert Grant, 57, an American banker, was on his way to the airport for a flight to Montreal.

He does not 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 to leave anyway to have the baby, but we decided to go now.”

Dixon reported from Moscow, Pannett from Sydney and Rauhala from Brussels. Steve Hendrix in Kyiv, David Stern in Lviv, Ukraine, Loveday Morris in Berlin, and Missy Ryan and Paul Sonne in Washington contributed to this report.