Russia says some forces are pulling back amid the Ukraine crisis after the foreign minister said the country was ready to continue talks

MOSCOW — Russia said Tuesday that some units participating in military exercises will begin to return to their bases, adding to a glimmer of hope that the Kremlin may not be planning an invasion of Ukraine anytime soon, although it did not give details of the withdrawal. .

The announcement came a day after Russia’s foreign minister said the country was ready to continue talking about the security grievances that led to the Ukraine crisis, changing tone after weeks of rising tensions. However, Western officials continued to warn that an invasion could happen at any moment and said that some forces and military equipment were moving towards the border, which confused the picture.

It was not immediately clear exactly where the troops that the Russian Defense Ministry said were being withdrawn were deployed, or how many were withdrawing, making it difficult to understand the meaning. This announcement pushed global markets and the ruble higher, but the Ukrainian leadership expressed skepticism.

“Russia is constantly making various statements,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. “That’s why we have a rule: we will not believe when we hear, we will believe when we see. When we see the withdrawal of troops, we will believe in de-escalation.”

Russia has concentrated more than 130,000 troops near Ukraine, raising fears of an invasion. Russia denies it has any plans to invade Ukraine, despite deploying troops on Ukraine’s borders to the north, south and east and holding massive military exercises nearby.

New glimmers of hope were accompanied by a flurry of diplomacy. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz planned to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow the day after he met with the Ukrainian leader in Kiev. Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, one of Russia’s harshest European critics, was also in Moscow on Tuesday to meet with Lavrov, while Ukraine’s Foreign Minister received his Italian counterpart.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s comments came during a televised meeting with Putin and seemed intended to inform the world about the Russian leader’s position. The Foreign Minister said that Moscow should conduct additional negotiations, despite the refusal of the West to take into account the main demands of Russia.

The talks “cannot go on indefinitely, but I would suggest continuing and expanding them at this stage,” Lavrov said, noting that Washington had offered to discuss limits on missile deployments in Europe, limits on military exercises and other confidence-building measures. measures.

Moscow wants assurances that NATO will not allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to become members. He also wants the alliance to stop placing weapons in Ukraine and withdraw its forces from Eastern Europe.

Lavrov said the possibilities for negotiations are “far from exhausted.”

Putin noted that the West might try to drag Russia into “endless negotiations” and wondered if there was still a chance of an agreement. Lavrov replied that his ministry would not allow the US and its allies to block major Russian requests.

The US reacted tepidly.

“The path for diplomacy remains open if Russia chooses to engage constructively,” said First Deputy White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “However, we clearly see the prospects for this, given the steps that Russia is taking on the ground in full view.”

One possible way out emerged this week: Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK, Vadim Prystaiko, pointed to the possibility that Ukraine would shelve its application for NATO membership — a goal written into its constitution — if it would help prevent a war with Russia.

Prystaiko later appears to have dropped the idea, but the fact that it was raised at all suggests that it is discussed behind closed doors.

Even despite the encouraging signs, the US and European countries continued to give warnings.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss confirmed on Tuesday that the danger of an invasion still exists, telling Sky News it “may be imminent”. But she added that “Vladimir Putin still has time to move back from the abyss.”

A similar warning was issued by Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt.

US officials said the Russian military was continuing its apparent preparations for an attack along Ukraine’s borders. A U.S. Defense Department spokesman said a small number of Russian ground units were moving away from larger staging areas over the course of several days, moving into positions closer to the border with Ukraine that could be starting points if Putin launched an invasion.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss information not made public. CBS News was the first to report on the units’ movements.

Maxar Technologies, a commercial satellite imagery company that monitors the Russian military buildup, has reported an increase in Russian military activity in Belarus, Crimea and western Russia, including the arrival of helicopters, attack aircraft and fighter-bombers at forward positions. The photographs, taken over 48 hours, also show how the ground forces leave their garrisons and combat units, lining up in a column.

However, Oleksiy Danilov, head of the Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, downplayed the threat of an invasion but warned of the risk of “internal destabilization” from unidentified forces.

“Today we do not see that a large-scale offensive by the Russian Federation could take place either on February 16 or 17,” he told reporters. “We are aware of the risks that exist on the territory of our country. But the situation is absolutely under control.”

As if in defiance, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has declared Wednesday to be a “day of national unity,” urging the country to fly the blue-and-yellow flag and sing the national anthem in the face of “hybrid threats.”

“This is not the first threat that the strong Ukrainian people have faced,” Zelenskiy said Monday night in a video message to the nation. “We are calm. We are strong. We are together”.

However, the country is preparing. The people of Kiev received letters from the mayor urging them to “defend their city,” and signs appeared in apartment buildings indicating the nearest bomb shelter. According to the mayor, there are about 4,500 such facilities in the capital, including underground garages, metro stations and basements.

Dr. Tamara Ugrich said she had stocked up on grain and canned food and prepared a suitcase in case of an emergency.

“I don’t believe in war, but on television the tension is growing every day and it’s getting harder and harder to keep calm,” she said. “The more we are told not to panic, the more nervous people become.”

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Karmanov reported from Kiev, Ukraine. Associated Press contributors Angela Charlton and Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Jill Lawless in London, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Robert Burns in Washington DC contributed to this report .

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