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Putin says Russia pulling back some troops; Biden warns against Ukraine invasion

The West said it was too early to tell whether Putin's announcement signaled any de-escalation in a crisis that it has warned could see Moscow invade its neighbor at any time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Moscow had decided to "partially withdraw" some troops gathered near Ukraine and said his country was ready for more talks with the West.

His comments, offering a glimmer of hope that a diplomatic solution to the standoff might still be possible, came after the country’s defense ministry announced that some troops were returning to their bases after completing military exercises.

But Kyiv, the United States and NATO said it was too early to tell whether the move signaled any de-escalation in a crisis that the West has warned could see Moscow invade its neighbor at any time.

With the world watching for any sign that the Kremlin might be willing to step back from the brink, President Joe Biden addressed the crisis Tuesday afternoon in remarks at the White House.

While the U.S. is ready to engage in diplomacy, his administration has not verified that Russia is partially drawing down troops and “an invasion remains distinctly possible," he said.

Biden added in a message to the Russian people, "You are not our enemy, and I do not believe you want a bloody, destructive war."

"Let there be no doubt if Russia commits this breach by invading Ukraine, responsible nations around the world will not hesitate to respond," Biden said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the U.S. commitment to a diplomatic solution in a call Tuesday with Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, but emphasized the Biden administration needed to see "verifiable, credible, meaningful de-escalation," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

Price added that the administration looked forward to receiving Russia's written response to the U.S. and NATO's formal proposals outlining concrete areas of discussion on European security, which Moscow was expected to transmit in the coming days.

In his speech, Biden said Russia has positioned 150,000 troops around Ukraine, which is about 20,000 more than has been reported. Russia, however, has consistently denied it is planning an invasion despite mounting alarm from the U.S. and its allies that reached a crescendo in recent days.

On Tuesday Putin said he doesn’t want war and was willing to talk further about Moscow's demands for security guarantees that are at the heart of the standoff.

Hours earlier the Russian defense ministry said that some units of its southern and western military districts were returning to base after completing their exercises near Ukraine.

The units "that have completed the tasks have already begun loading onto rail and road transport and will begin moving to their military garrisons today,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in a video message posted online.

However, the announcement was met with skepticism while other developments suggested any easing of tensions was still some way off. Russia has announced two similar drawdowns in the past two months without any end to its threats.

And while Moscow was heralding a partial drawdown, other military exercises, which the U.S. and its allies have feared might be used as cover for an attack, were continuing. It was also unclear how many troops would withdraw, and to where.

Washington has voiced mounting concern that an invasion could come any day and is moving its embassy from the Ukrainian capital to the western city of Lviv, citing a “dramatic acceleration in the buildup of Russian forces."

New satellite images released Tuesday showed that the buildup had intensified in recent days. Maxar Technologies, a commercial satellite imagery company, reported increased activity in Belarus, Crimea and western Russia, including ground forces leaving their garrisons and combat units moving into convoy formation.

Image: RUSSIA-UKRAINE-CONFLICT
This satellite image released by Maxar Technologies shows recent troop transport and ground attack helicopter deployments in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.Maxar Technologies / AFP - Getty Images

Kyiv greeted Tuesday's announcement that some Russian forces were pulling back with caution.

"We in Ukraine have a rule: We don’t believe what we hear, we believe what we see," the country's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said on Twitter. "If a real withdrawal follows these statements, we will believe in the beginning of a real de-escalation.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels that “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.”

Washington was also skeptical.

“In late December, there were some similar claims that came out of Moscow that they were de escalating and in fact, facts on the ground did not support that claim,” U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith told reporters. “We’ve seen other instances in the past where Russia has claimed to be de-escalating.”

Sanctions and cyberattacks

Amid the questions about Russia's next move, U.S. lawmakers continued talks on a stalled package of sanctions to slap on Moscow if Putin decides to move on Ukraine, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told MSNBC on Tuesday. But with negotiations failing to yield a compromise, Republicans unveiled their own bill Tuesday that would impose costs on Russia, including the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany. How to address the critical energy pipeline has been a point of contention between the GOP and Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other senators issued a bipartisan statement after Biden's speech, warning Putin that Congress is "prepared to fully support the immediate imposition of strong, robust, and effective sanctions on Russia."

“Should Vladimir Putin further escalate his ongoing assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty, Russia must be made to pay a severe price," the senators said.

Also on Tuesday, several key Ukrainian websites, including those of two of the country’s largest banks and its defense ministry, were temporarily knocked offline after an apparent cyberattack, Ukrainian officials said. It was not immediately clear who was behind the attacks.

But Tuesday’s talk of furthering negotiations offered fresh hope that Moscow may still be open to a diplomatic solution to the monthslong standoff.

Putin, speaking at a news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, said that there were still wide-ranging disagreements and emphasized the need for the West to heed Russia’s main demands. But he said that the Kremlin was ready to engage in talks over missile deployments and greater transparency of military drills.

Russia wants to effectively reshape the post-Cold War security landscape of Europe, where some former Soviet republics have joined NATO and hosted American and allied troops on their soil.

The demands were largely dismissed by the U.S. and its allies, but western leaders have engaged in a frenzy of diplomacy in the hopes of warding off a deadly new conflict on European soil.

“The diplomatic possibilities are far from being exhausted,” Scholz said on Tuesday. In addition to Blinken's call with Lavrov, Biden spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Putin reaffirmed that Russia sees Ukraine’s bid to join NATO as a major security threat, adding that Moscow won’t be assuaged by assurances that Kyiv wouldn’t be able to join the transatlantic military alliance any time soon.

“We need to solve this issue today by peaceful means through a diplomatic process,” he said. “We want our partners to hear our concerns and be taken seriously.”

Meanwhile Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, voted to ask Putin to recognize two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent. Moscow has been backing pro-Russia separatist fighters in a conflict there that has claimed some 14,000 lives since 2014, when Russia also annexed Ukraine’s Crimea.

Kyiv said that such a move would effectively bury efforts to find a long-term resolution to the ongoing conflict, which some internationally see as a possible route out of the immediate crisis.