Russia says it returns some troops to base in areas near Ukraine

Romania should raise its defence spending to 2.5% of gross domestic product from 2% now following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Klaus Iohannis said on Tuesday. [EPA-EFE/RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY PRESS SERVICE HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES]

Some troops in Russia’s military districts adjacent to Ukraine are returning to their bases after completing drills, Russia’s defence ministry said on Tuesday (15 February), while NATO said it had not seen “any de-escalation on the ground”.

In a video published online, a ministry spokesman said that while large-scale drills across the country continued, some units of the Southern and Western military districts have completed their exercises and started returning to base, a move that could de-escalate frictions between Moscow and the West.

Video footage published by the defence ministry showed some tanks and other armoured vehicles being loaded onto railway flatcars.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv would “believe in de-escalation” only after seeing Russia’s pullout, Interfax Ukraine news agency reported.

“We continuously hear different statements from the Russian Federation, so we have a rule … we believe what we see. If we see the pullout we will believe in de-escalation,” the report quoted Kuleba as saying.

Russia has amassed over 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, prompting fears of an invasion, especially as Moscow’s Feb. 10-20 joint drills with Belarus mean that Ukraine is almost encircled by the Russian military.

Russian markets reacted positively to the news and the rouble, which has been under pressure due to fears of fresh Western sanctions in the event of a war, gained 1.5% shortly after the defence ministry announcement.

Although Moscow has denied ever planning to attack Ukraine, it has demanded legally binding guarantees from the United States and NATO that Kyiv will not be allowed to join the military bloc. Washington and Brussels have so far refused to make such pledges.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was expected in Moscow later on Tuesday to meet President Vladimir Putin in a high stakes mission to avert war.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin said that U.S. assertions that Russia was poised to invade Ukraine were baseless hysteria.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a briefing that Putin would prefer that Russia and the West calmly discuss each others’ concerns and did not want to see “information campaigns” that further escalated tensions.

‘Cautious optimism’

NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed signals that Russia may be looking for a diplomatic solution amid a military build-up on Ukraine’s border, but urged Moscow to demonstrate its will to act.

“There are signs from Moscow that diplomacy should continue. This gives grounds for cautious optimism. But so far we have not seen any sign of de-escalation on the ground from the Russian side”, Stoltenberg told reporters ahead of a two-day meeting of the alliance’s defence ministers in Brussels.

“Russia has amassed a fighting force in and around Ukraine unprecedented since the cold war. Everything is now in place for a new attack. But Russia still has time to step back from the brink, stop preparing for war and start working for a peaceful solution”, Stoltenberg said, calling the current situation the “most serious security crisis we have faced in Europe for decades”.

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