Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Moscow does not want a war in Europe amid rising tensions over Ukraine but demanded that the issue of Kyiv’s relationship with NATO be resolved in its entirety immediately.
Speaking at a joint news conference on Tuesday after talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin said Russia had been informed by Western powers that its neighbor would not join the transatlantic military alliance in the near future. But he warned that it was not a satisfactory assurance.
Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders and is campaigning for security guarantees from the West including a guarantee that Kyiv will be prevented from ever joining NATO’s ranks, despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pushing for it to do so.
“We need to resolve this issue now… [and] we hope very much our concern will be heard by our partners and taken seriously, ”Putin told reporters in Moscow.
“[And] As for war in Europe… about whether we want it or not? Of course not. That is why we put forward proposals for a negotiation process, the result of which should be an agreement on ensuring equal security for everyone, including our country, ”he said.
Moscow announces partial pullback of forces
The United States and NATO have flatly rejected Russia’s main security demands – which include a call for NATO to cease all military activity in Eastern Europe – but have sent counterproposals to Moscow.
Despite emphasizing the need for the West to heed the Kremlin’s primary concerns, Putin said Russia was ready to engage in talks on limiting the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe, increasing the transparency of military drills and other confidence-building measures.
His remarks came after Russia’s defense ministry said it was orchestrating a partial pullback of its forces from near Ukraine after concluding military drills.
Moscow gave no details on where the soldiers were being pulled back from, or how many were being moved, but the defense ministry published footage showing tanks and other armored vehicles being loaded onto railway flatcars.
Scholz welcomed the announcement of a pullback as a “good signal” and said diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis were far from exhausted.
“For us Germans but also Europeans, sustainable security can only be reached… with Russia. Therefore it should be possible to find a solution. No matter how difficult and serious the situation seems to be, I refuse to say it is hopeless, ”he said at the news conference alongside Putin.
‘When we see troops pulling out, we’ll believe in de-escalation’
Others were more cautious. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “the intelligence that we’re seeing today is still not encouraging”, and Ukraine said the reported pullback needed to be seen to be believed.
“When we see troops pulling out, we’ll believe in de-escalation,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.
NATO’s chief meanwhile welcomed signals from Russia in the past two days that it may be looking for a diplomatic resolution, but he urged Moscow to demonstrate its will to act with a “significant and enduring withdrawal of forces… and not least the heavy equipment”.
“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, ”Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.
He added that Russia has in the past moved into areas with troops and equipment, then pulled back leaving military material in place, creating the potential for forces to regroup.
Western powers warn invasion could be imminent
Moscow’s show of force near Ukraine’s borders has prompted months of frantic Western diplomacy and drawn threats of severe sanctions if it invades, culminating in a crescendo of US and British warnings in recent days that this could happen at any time.
On Tuesday a US-based private satellite imagery company that has been monitoring the buildup reported increased Russian military activity in Belarus, Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and western Russia.
Maxar Technologies’ photos, taken on Sunday and Monday, appeared to show the arrival of helicopters, ground-attack aircraft and fighter-bomber jets at forward locations.
The images also captured ground forces leaving their garrisons and combat units moving into convoy formation, Maxar said.
Amid the mounting concern, the Kremlin has continued to deny that it plans to invade Ukraine, saying it can exercise troops on its own territory as it sees fit. On Tuesday, Moscow sought to portray the Western talk of war as both false and hysterical.
“February 15, 2022, will go down in history as the day Western war propaganda failed. Humiliated and destroyed without a single shot fired, ”Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.