WASHINGTON — No Russian troops were withdrawn from the border with Ukraine, a senior Biden administration official told reporters Wednesday night, disputing Moscow’s claim that it was pulling back some forces.
“We now know it was false,” the official said, adding that as many as 7,000 troops have joined the 150,000 already near the border in recent days.
The official said troops were arriving as recently as Wednesday and Moscow could launch a false pretext to invade Ukraine at any moment. The official also gave one of the grimmest assessments yet for the possibility of reaching a diplomatic solution to avoid war.
“Russia keeps saying it wants to pursue a diplomatic solution, their actions indicate otherwise,” the official said. “We hope they will change course before starting a war that will bring catastrophic death and destruction.”
Moscow has said it was pulling back some of the 150,000 troops that the United States and its allies warn have converged around Ukraine on three sides. But with the world searching for signs that a deadly new conflict on European soil might be averted, days of high-stakes signaling from Russia were met with skepticism by the West.
"We continue to see critical units moving toward the border, not away from the border," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on MSNBC on Wednesday. “There’s what Russia says and then there’s what Russia does. We haven’t seen any pullback of its forces.”
He added, "It would be good if they followed through on what they said, but so far we haven’t seen it.”
In Kyiv, where Ukraine's leaders have sought to play down that alarm, the country held a defiant national day of unity.
Meanwhile, in an apparent bid to back up its claims of a partial withdrawal, the Russian defense ministry released video showing a trainload of armored vehicles moving across a bridge away from Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014.
That followed a similar announcement a day earlier, while Russian President Vladimir Putin also talked up the possibility of a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.
But leaders in Washington and Europe urged caution.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted Wednesday that “statements on withdrawal aren’t sufficient. We need transparency and facts.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels that in fact Russia had "increased the number of troops, and more troops are on the way."
After meeting with NATO defense ministers Wednesday, Stoltenberg said at a press conference that the alliance has not seen "any sign of de-escalation on the ground, no withdrawals of troops or equipment."
Russia has a "massive invasion force ready to attack with high-end capabilities from Crimea to Belarus," Stoltenberg said, noting that it's the largest build up of forces in Europe since the Cold War.
NATO sent "concrete proposals" on transparency, risk reduction and arms control and has not received a response from Russia, he said.
Stoltenberg described Russia's efforts to use its military to "intimidate" other countries as "the new normal in Europe," which he said has prompted defense ministers to develop options Wednesday to strengthen NATO's deterrence and defense. One option, he said, involves establishing new NATO battlegroups in central, eastern and southeastern Europe.
In a joint written statement Wednesday, NATO defense ministers said their strategy involves "additional land forces" as well as "additional maritime and air assets." The ministers described the measures as "preventive, proportionate and non-escalatory."
Meanwhile, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, called it “the largest build-up of troops on European soil since the darkest days of the Cold War.”
Like U.S. officials, she said Russia had been “sending conflicting signals” over what it planned to do next.
With tensions mounting, three U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft had close encounters with multiple Russian jets over the Mediterranean Sea last weekend, the Pentagon said Wednesday, adding that the U.S. planes were in international waters at the time they were intercepted.
No one was injured, but the intercepts were unprofessional, said two defense officials. Intercepts like this occur frequently, but they are usually deemed safe or professional.
“We have made our concerns known to Russian officials through diplomatic channels,” said U.S. Captain Mike Kafka, a Navy spokesperson. “While no one was hurt, interactions such as these could result in miscalculations and mistakes that lead to more dangerous outcomes.”
'Nothing has changed'
President Joe Biden said Tuesday it was still “very much a possibility” that Russia could invade Ukraine, warning it could also lead to a spike in American energy prices. While the U.S. is ready to engage in diplomacy, he said, his administration had not verified any partial drawdown of Russian troops.
Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank, said invasion was not inevitable and that Putin would likely prefer gaining concessions without force.
But despite Russian claims of a partial withdrawal, "nothing has changed on the ground in any meaningful way," Galeotti tweeted Wednesday. "Putin could have invaded yesterday, he can still do so tomorrow."
While the U.S. and European powers have remained adamant that a Russian attack is likely within days, Ukrainian officials and citizens have taken a far more tempered tone when discussing the possibility of an assault by Moscow.
Earlier this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared to mock media reports that Wednesday would be the day the invasion begins. Instead, he announced it would be a national day of unity — with Ukrainians marking it by raising the blue and yellow national flag and playing the national anthem.
In the city of Dnipro, less than 120 miles from the ongoing conflict in the country's east with Russian-backed separatists that has raged since 2014, locals took to the streets outside city hall. People in traditional dress sang a patriotic song and cadets raised the national flag. Some 200 city council workers attended.
“Everybody should continue working and [continue] everyday life,” said Natalya Chernyshova, 55, head of economic development and investment at the city council. “I think that’s the biggest [way] to show and to demonstrate that we are not afraid.”
However, even while that was happening, Ukrainian officials said that a cyberattack that began Tuesday and knocked offline the website of its defense ministry and two largest banks was the worst of its kind in the country’s history.
The distributed denial of service attack carried “traces of foreign intelligence services,” Ilya Vityuk, head of the cybersecurity department of Ukraine’s state security service, told a news briefing.
Vityuk said that Russia was the country “interested in such image strikes” against Ukraine, but he and other officials said they could not conclusively blame Moscow, which has denied involvement in this attack and consistently denied planning an invasion.