WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden on Tuesday said he wasn’t yet convinced that Russia’s announcement that it would scale back military operations near the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv will lead to a fundamental shift in the war.
Biden, during an appearance with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong following bilateral talks at the White House, said he was waiting to see what Russia offers in ongoing talks with Ukraine and how Moscow readjusts its troop presence.
US and Western officials have expressed skepticism about Russia’s announcement earlier on Tuesday that it would dial back operations in an effort to increase trust in ongoing talks between Ukrainian and Russian officials in Turkey.
“We’ll see,” Biden said. “I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are.”
Others have also reacted with skepticism to Russia’s comments.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested Russian indications of a pullback could be an attempt by Moscow to “deceive people and deflect attention.”
While Moscow portrayed it as a goodwill gesture, its ground troops have become bogged down and taken heavy losses in their bid to seize Kyiv and other cities. Last week and again on Tuesday, the Kremlin seemed to lower its war aims, saying its “main goal” now is gaining control of the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
Western officials say Moscow is reinforcing troops in the Donbas in a bid to encircle Ukraine’s forces. And Russia’s deadly siege in the south continues, with civilians trapped in the ruins of Mariupol and other bombarded cities.
“There is what Russia says and there is what Russia does, and we’re focused on the latter,” Blinken said in Morocco. “And what Russia is doing is the continued brutalization of Ukraine.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US has detected small numbers of Russian ground forces moving away from the Kyiv area, but it appeared to be a repositioning of forces, “not a real withdrawal.”
He said it was too soon to say how extensive the Russian movements may be or where the troops will be repositioned.
“It does not mean the threat to Kyiv is over,” Kirby said. “They can still inflict massive brutality on the country, including on Kyiv.” He said Russian airstrikes against Kyiv continued.
Rob Lee, a military expert at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, tweeted of the Russian announcement: “This sounds like more of an acknowledgment of the situation around Kyiv where Russia’s advance has been stalled for weeks and Ukrainian forces have had recent successes. Russia doesn’t have the forces to encircle the city.”
Over the past several days, Ukrainian forces have mounted counterattacks and reclaimed ground on the outskirts of Kyiv and other areas.
Ukrainian soldiers gathered in a trench for photos with Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, who said that Ukraine had retaken control of a vast majority of Irpin, a key suburb northwest of the capital that has seen heavy fighting.
“We defend our motherland because we have very high morale,” said Syrskyi, the commander in charge of the defense of Kyiv. “And because we want to win.”
Ukrainian forces also took back Trostyanets, south of Sumy in the northeast, after weeks of occupation that left a landscape of Russian bodies, burned and twisted tanks and charred buildings.
Putin’s ground forces have been thwarted not just by stronger-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, but by what Western officials say are Russian tactical missteps, poor morale, shortages of food, fuel and cold weather gear, and other problems.
Repeating what the military said last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that “liberating Donbas” is now Moscow’s chief objective.
While that presents a possible face-saving exit strategy for Putin, it has also raised Ukrainian fears the Kremlin aims to split the country and force it to surrender a swath of its territory.
Biden’s remarks came after meeting with Lee for talks in which he sought to assure Singapore and other Pacific allies that his administration remains focused on the Indo-Pacific region even as they deal with the fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Biden at the start of an Oval Office meeting with Lee said it was essential that his administration continue to work on bolstering relations with Singapore and other nations in the region. The president has made adjusting US foreign policy to better reflect the rise of America’s most significant military and economic competitor, China, a central focus of his foreign policy, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has complicated the effort.
“Even as we address the crisis in Europe, my administration is strongly supportive of moving rapidly to implement the Indo-Pacific strategy,” Biden said.