Russia reiterated claims Wednesday that it has begun withdrawing some troops from close to the Ukrainian border. Many Western nations, however, say there is little evidence of a pullback and fear an invasion of Ukraine is still imminent.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense released several videos purporting to show tanks and troops withdrawing from the border region. One video showed tanks being transported by rail across the Kerch Strait Bridge to Russia from Crimea, which Moscow forcibly seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Russia has mocked Western claims that it would invade Ukraine this week and maintains it has no plans to conduct any such operation. After meeting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Moscow on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied he was seeking conflict.
“Do we want it or not? Of course, not. That is why we have offered our proposals to start the negotiation process, which should lead to an agreement of providing equal security for everybody, including our country,” Putin told reporters.
Scholz welcomed the change of tone. “I absolutely agree. Diplomatic efforts are by no means exhausted. It’s now about solving this crisis peacefully in a courageous and decisive way. It is a good sign that we are hearing some of the troops are being withdrawn. We hope more such signs will follow,” the German leader said.
Details of the Russian withdrawal are scarce. Footage posted to social media Tuesday, verified by the Reuters news agency, appeared to show field hospitals being transported toward the Ukrainian border. Western intelligence officials say they see little sign of a Russian withdrawal.
“We haven’t yet seen that. It may happen in the next 24 hours or 12 hours,” British Defense Minister Ben Wallace told BBC News on Wednesday. “What we had seen as of yesterday (is) the opposite — we saw large field hospitals being built in a number of districts around Ukraine and indeed we saw continued deployment from holding areas into more forward areas. That may all change, I mean, we’ll see … we shall judge them not on their rhetoric but on their actions,” Wallace said.
U.S. intelligence officials have warned that Russia could stage a false flag attack in Ukraine’s Donbas region, which has been under the control of Kremlin-backed rebels since 2014.
“What Russia could do is stage some kind of Ukrainian attack and then say that the Russian citizens in Donbas need to be protected, and use the Russian military for that,” said Maria Avdeeva, policy director of the Kyiv-based European Expert Association, in an interview with VOA.
Meanwhile, Russia’s parliament voted in favor of a resolution Tuesday calling for Putin to formally recognize the rebel-held districts of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent from Ukraine.
“This recognition of the republics could be made by Russia, if Russia doesn’t get what it wants,” Avdeeda told VOA.
Speaking Tuesday, Putin appeared to reject that option for now. “We will do everything to solve the problem in Donbas, but we will do this first of all based on the unrealized possibilities of the Minsk agreements,” he said.
The agreements set out a roadmap for elections in the rebel-held regions, which would be given some level of autonomy and reintegrated into Ukraine. Kyiv fears that would create a powerful pro-Russian block in Ukrainian politics controlled by the Kremlin, with an effective veto over Ukraine’s ambitions to join NATO.
Day of unity
Under the looming threat of invasion, Ukrainians took to the streets Wednesday in a day of unity declared by the government. Giant Ukrainian flags were unfurled across the capital and in other cities.
Among those taking part was 50-year-old Kyiv resident Olena Khotenko. “Our power is that we understand the situation we are in and our power lies in the fact we became stronger than we were in 2014,” she told the Associated Press news agency.
Victoriya Kuzminova, a teacher at a Kyiv elementary school, said the students were afraid. “All the children at school ask us whether there will be war or not. That’s why we’re here as well, to show to the children that as long as we are united, we have nothing to fear.”
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Wednesday posted a message on social media praising the Ukrainian people. “Nobody will love our home as much as we do, and nobody can defend our home as we can,” he said.