BRUSSELS (AN) — NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday there is no indication Russia is backing away from possibly invading Ukraine despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's claims he is partially withdrawing a huge number of forces engaged in elaborate military drills.
The military alliance among Canada, the United States and 27 European nations is publicizing its take on Putin's maneuvers to deter Russia from rolling into its neighbor Ukraine. Though Putin said he does not want to start a war, leaders in Washington and Europe say they are wary of his apparent diplomatic overtures and hope for meaningful dialogue.
"So far, we have not seen any de-escalation on the ground. On the contrary, it appears that Russia continues the military build-up," Stoltenberg told reporters ahead of meetings with NATO defense ministers in Brussels.
"We will continue to convey a very clear message to Russia that we are ready to sit down and discuss with them. But at the same time, we are prepared for the worst," he said. "And if Russia once again invades Ukraine, they will pay a high price. And we will continue to expose Russia’s plans and actions to make it harder for them to conduct aggressive actions against Ukraine."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for unity in his country because "only we, together, can protect our home.” Putin said he decided to partially withdraw troops from Ukraine's borders but did not elaborate, calling for negotiations to keep Ukraine from joining NATO.
Putin met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday but expressed skepticism that NATO has no intention of expanding eastward to Ukraine. “They are telling us it won’t happen tomorrow. Well, when will it happen? The day after tomorrow?" Putin asked. "We want to solve this issue now as part of a negotiation process through peaceful means.”
Russia's Defense Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov announced that troops in Russia’s southern and western military districts along the border with Ukraine had completed their military drills and “will begin moving to their military garrisons today.” He also said Russian troops taking part in military drills at Belarus would return to their permanent bases.
The ministry showed video of tanks supposedly leaving from Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia seized in 2014. However, heavy forces and weapons remained north of Ukraine in Belarus, where joint military exercises with Russia were being held, according to U.S. analysts. Some 150,000 soldiers, tanks and missiles were moved to Russia’s border with Ukraine.
With NATO, U.S., and Ukrainian officials closely watching the exercises, U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to give room for diplomacy to work but said he would not do so if it means sacrificing "basic principles" such as independence for Ukraine.
"As long as there is hope of a diplomatic resolution that prevents the use of force and avoids the incredible human suffering that would follow, we will pursue it," he said. "The Russian Defense Ministry reported today that some military units are leaving their positions near Ukraine. That would be good, but we have not yet verified that. We have not yet verified that Russian military units are returning to their home bases."
Biden said U.S. analysts indicate Russian troops still pose a threat. "And the fact remains: Right now, Russia has more than 150,000 troops encircling Ukraine in Belarus and along Ukraine’s border," he said. "An invasion remains distinctly possible."