“Unfortunately there’s a difference between what Russia says and what it does, and what we’re seeing is no meaningful pullback,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News. “On the contrary, we continue to see forces, especially forces that would be in the vanguard of any renewed aggression against Ukraine, continuing to be at the border, to mass at the border.”
Blinken’s remarks were echoed by other Western officials including NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg who told reporters that the military alliance does not see any de-escalation or withdrawal of troops.
“This may change,” he said, but as of now, “Russia maintains a massive invasion force ready to attack,” he said outside a meeting of defense ministers in Brussels.
Russia’s Defense Ministry, meanwhile, released a video purporting to show a train moving tanks and armored vehicles into Russia from Crimea along a bridge constructed between the two territories after Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014. The Russian troops and military equipment were returning to their bases after the conclusions of military exercises, the ministry said.
In response to Stoltenberg’s questioning of a drawdown, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov faulted the ability of NATO systems to analyze what was happening. “This, to be sure, does not give NATO representatives an opportunity to soberly assess the situation,” he said Wednesday in his daily conference call with journalists.
The conflicting accounts came as the Pentagon described an incident in which U.S. and Russian aircraft flew perilously close to each other over the weekend above the Mediterranean Sea.
Three U.S. Navy P-8A surveillance aircraft experienced “unprofessional intercepts” by Russian aircraft, said Navy Capt. Mike Kafka, a Pentagon spokesman. “We have made our concerns known to Russian officials through diplomatic channels,” he said.
Rochan Consulting, an independent analytical group based in Gdansk, Poland, that tracks military movements using satellite images, reported Wednesday that more military trains have arrived near the border with Ukraine since Russia’s announcement that some forces were withdrawing. It said elements of Russia’s 2nd Combined Arms Army and equipment from other units continued to move toward the border.
“There is no indication that troops are being withdrawn. In fact, it is the opposite,” the report said.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday that the Group of Seven foreign ministers will hold crisis talks on Ukraine on the sidelines of an annual security conference in Munich this weekend.
Many analysts are focused on whether Russia withdraws its massive forces and weaponry from Belarus, north of Ukraine, after joint Russian-Belarusian exercises end Sunday — and whether the Russian troops take all their military equipment with them.
“Not a single Russian serviceman, not a single piece of equipment will remain in Belarus after the completion of exercises with Russia,” Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said Wednesday during a news conference in Minsk.
Peskov said Putin showed his readiness to negotiate in his meetings with Western leaders over the Ukraine crisis. Russia is demanding that NATO not expand further to the east, precluding Ukraine from ever joining, and should significantly scale back its presence and activities in Eastern Europe.
“The president is continuing to give explanations to the entire world. He has done so repeatedly over the past week,” Peskov said Wednesday.
The U.S. and NATO have said the alliance’s open-door policy is nonnegotiable but progress could me made on other issues, including reciprocal arms control measures and limitations on military exercises.
Russian statements on partial troop withdrawals coincided with a string of disruptive cyberattacks Tuesday on Ukrainian government and banking websites. Ukrainian authorities have not said who was responsible for the attacks, which hit the Defense Ministry and two major banks. But analysts have warned that Russian cyberattacks could precede a conventional military attack.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense said Wednesday that the cyberattacks were continuing, but Peskov denied any Russian role.
“We don’t know anything,” he said. “And, as expected, Ukraine continues to accuse [Russia] of everything. Russia has nothing to do with any DDoS attacks,” he added, referring to distributed denial-of-service attacks.
llya Vityuk, head of the Cybersecurity Department of the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, told journalists at a briefing Wednesday that the only country interested in carrying out such attacks on Ukraine was Russia, although he said it was too early to identify specific perpetrators, Reuters reported.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov called it the largest such attack on government sites in the country’s history.
“This attack is unprecedented,” he told the briefing. “It was prepared in advance, and the key goal of this attack is destabilization. It is to sow panic, to do everything so that a certain chaos appears in our country.”
Meanwhile, small groups of Ukrainians waved flags on the day of unity called by President Volodymyr Zelensky, who said his country just wants “to live in peace, happily, in a family, children with parents.”
Zelensky told Ukrainians: “No one can love our home as we can. And only we, together, can protect our home.”
Anastacia Kuleba, 27, was one of several dozen Kyiv residents who heeded Zelensky’s call to gather in “flash mobs” at 10 a.m. to sing the Ukrainian national anthem. She came to Maidan, the site of mass protests in Ukraine’s 2014 uprising that succeeded in ousting a pro-Kremlin government.
“Ukrainians are united,” said Kuleba, who was forced to flee the eastern city of Donetsk after Russian-backed separatists ignited a war in 2014.
Anastasia Kuznetsova, 24, expressed the fatigue and skepticism that many Ukrainians feel about reports that Russia could invade at any time. “Some people are celebrating,” she said, referring to the day of unity, “but really for people here, it’s just an ordinary day. Everyone is talking about war and what will happen and blah blah blah. But for people who are working, it’s all the same. Just an ordinary day.”
Kuznetsova said she doubts that Russia would invade Ukraine. “We know that nothing will happen, actually,” she said. “Some magazines and whatnot are saying war will happen, but what we see now is just people trying to scare another country. But everything is calm here.”
Russia has been supporting separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions since 2014, the same year it annexed Crimea from its neighbor. On Tuesday, the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, appealed to Putin to recognize the contested territories as independent states.
Blinken pushed back strongly Wednesday against any recognition, saying in a statement that it would amount to Russia’s “wholesale rejection” of Russia’s previous commitments and “constitute a gross violation of international law.” He said such a move would also contradict Russian pledges to pursue a diplomatic resolution of the Ukraine crisis and would bring “a swift and firm response from the United States in full coordination with our Allies and partners.”
The European Union on Wednesday called for “concrete” steps from Moscow to de-escalate.
“Our call on Russia is crystal clear: Do not choose war,” European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said in her remarks at the European parliament plenary session on European-Russian relations. “On the one hand, authorities announce Russian troop pullbacks. On the other hand, the Duma votes for the formal recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics,” she said.
Pannett reported from Sydney, Rauhala from Brussels and Hudson from Washington. Isabelle Khurshudyan and Steve Hendrix in Kyiv, Dan Lamothe and Shane Harris in Washington, and Mary Ilyushina in Minsk contributed to this report.