NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday said Russia seemed to be building up its forces around Ukraine, despite Moscow announcing the pullback of more forces from the border.
“We have heard the signs from Moscow about readiness to continue diplomatic efforts, but so far, we have not seen any de-escalation on the ground. On the contrary, it appears that Russia continues their military build-up,” Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday ahead of a meeting of NATO defense ministers.
“We haven’t seen a pullback,” added US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “He [Putin] can pull the trigger. He can pull it today. He can pull it tomorrow. He can pull it next week,” Blinken told ABC News. “The forces are there if he wants to renew aggression against Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, the Kremlin said it was “positive” that US President Joe Biden wanted to continue talks on the Ukraine crisis, as Moscow said it was pulling back some of its troops from its neighbor’s border.
“It is positive that the US president is also noting his readiness to start serious negotiations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
The Kremlin and NATO comments came after Russia on Wednesday said military drills in Moscow-annexed Crimea had ended and that soldiers were returning to their garrisons, a day after it announced a first troop pullback from Ukraine’s borders.
“Units of the Southern Military District, having completed their participation in tactical exercises, are moving to their permanent deployment points,” Moscow’s defense ministry said in a statement, without clarifying where those positions might be.
State television showed images of military units crossing a bridge linking the Russia-controlled peninsula to the mainland. It did not disclose when the images were taken.
The statement said tanks, infantry vehicles and artillery were leaving Crimea by rail.
However, the UK defense secretary said latest intelligence showed that 60 percent of Russia’s entire ground troop force still remained on the Ukrainian border, with an additional naval presence.
“I can also tell you judge with your own eyes at the scale of that Russian deployment on the borders of Ukraine and indeed all the press conferences held by President Putin,” Ben Wallace told Sky News.
Wallace said the land troops combined with Russia’s “significant flotilla” at sea meant that Ukraine is “fairly surrounded” by a “fairly large force.”
On Sunday, Wallace compared Western diplomatic efforts to head off a Russian invasion of Ukraine to the appeasement of Nazi Germany ahead of World War II, saying there was a “whiff of Munich in the air.”
The announcements by the UK and Russia came a day after Moscow said it was pulling back some of the troops deployed on its neighbor’s borders, and the Kremlin’s envoy to the European Union pushed back against claims of a potential invasion.
“As far as Russia is concerned, I can assure you that there will be no attack this Wednesday,” Chizhov told Germany’s Die Welt newspaper, according to Deutsche Welle.
“Wars in Europe rarely start on a Wednesday,” Chizhov said. “There will be no escalation in the coming week either, or in the week after that, or in the coming month.”
But Western leaders remained concerned that Russia could still launch an attack on Ukraine, with Biden warning on Tuesday that it remained “very much a possibility.”
Biden said that despite Russian claims earlier in the day, Washington and its allies had yet to verify the withdrawal of any of the tens of thousands of troops Moscow mustered along Ukraine’s border.
He promised that the US would give diplomacy “every chance,” but struck a skeptical tone about Moscow’s intentions.
“Two paths are still open,” Biden said in remarks at the White House. “But let there be no doubt: If Russia commits this breach by invading Ukraine, responsible nations around the world will not hesitate to respond. If we do not stand for freedom where it is at risk today, we’ll surely pay a steeper price tomorrow.”
Russia has denied having any invasion plans. It wants the West to keep Ukraine and other former Soviet nations out of NATO, halt weapons deployments near Russian borders and roll back forces from Eastern Europe.
The US and its allies have roundly rejected those demands, but they offered to engage in talks with Russia on ways to bolster security in Europe.
Ukrainian leaders have repeatedly sought to project calm but also strength during the crisis.
In an apparent show of defiance, President Volodymyr Zelensky declared that Wednesday would be a “day of national unity,” calling on citizens to display the blue-and-yellow flag and sing the national anthem in the face of “hybrid threats.”