Biden takes wait-and-see approach as Russia says some troops pulling back

Biden takes wait-and-see approach as Russia says some troops pulling back

War felt a little less inevitable Tuesday as Russia announced it was pulling back some troops from their positions near the Ukrainian border, but U.S. and NATO leaders said they could not verify those claims and President Biden again bluntly warned the Kremlin of severe consequences if it started “a war without cause or reason” against its smaller neighbor.

Mr. Biden used an afternoon speech at the White House to again urge his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to change course and deescalate what has become a tense, long-running military standoff between Russia and Ukraine. Russia now has more than 130,000 troops along Ukraine’s border, including detachments in Belarus that Moscow says have been conducting routine exercises and soon will return to their permanent bases. Russian officials said that other troops in Ukraine’s Crimea region, which Russia seized by force in 2014 and claims as its own territory, are also ending exercises. 

Just hours after those statements, Mr. Putin said after a three-hour meeting with visiting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that his country is open to another round of negotiations with the West, capping a whirlwind few hours that suggest Moscow may be looking to cut a deal short of war and that the invasion U.S. officials predicted could begin as soon as Wednesday may have been called off.

“We do not want war in Europe …,” Mr. Putin told reporters after the private meeting. “We are ready to work further together. We are ready to go down the negotiations track.”

Still, Mr. Biden made clear that Russia has a long way to go to defuse the crisis. He stressed that Washington would not simply trust the words of Mr. Putin or his top generals.

“The Russian defense minister reported today that some military units are leaving their positions near Ukraine,” Mr. Biden said. “That would be good, but we have not yet verified that. We have not yet verified the Russian military units are returning to their home bases.”

Rather, he said, U.S. analysts “indicate that they remain very much in a threatening position.”

After weeks of increasingly belligerent talks on both sides, the tone Tuesday appeared to be focused far more on diplomacy than arms as the best hope to end the crisis.

Mr. Biden, who spoke with Mr. Putin and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy in separate calls over the weekend, at one point appeared to offer the Russian leader the broad discussion of a revamped European security system that the Kremlin has been demanding for months.

While backing Ukraine’s right to protect its territory and saying U.S. forces would strongly respond to any Russian move against NATO countries in the region, Mr. Biden added that his administration “has put on the table concrete ideas to establish a security environment in Europe. We’re proposing new arms control measures, new transparency measures, new strategic stability measures” that would apply both to Russia and to NATO

Mr. Biden also invoked history, telling Mr. Putin that any move against Ukraine will not resemble heroic wars of the past such as the Allies’ fight against Nazi Germany, but rather will be a senseless conflict with all sides suffering.

“World War II was a war of necessity. But if Russia attacks Ukraine, it would be a war of choice or a war without cause or reason,” the president said. “I say these things not to provoke but to speak the truth because the truth matters. Accountability matters.”

After meeting with the German chancellor, Mr. Putin seemed to open the door to diplomacy a bit more. He said Russia is open to further talks with the U.S. and NATO. Previous rounds of negotiation have yielded little, however, as Moscow stuck by its demands that NATO never expand to include Ukraine or Georgia and that the alliance pull back broadly in Eastern Europe along Russia’s western borders.

Mr. Putin reiterated Tuesday that he expects those issues to be on the table in any further negotiations and that Russia’s patience is limited. He said NATO’s assurances that Ukraine will not immediately join the alliance — a point Mr. Scholz stressed again — are insufficient from the Kremlin’s perspective.

“They are telling us it won’t happen tomorrow,” Mr. Putin said. “Well, when will it happen? The day after tomorrow? What does it change for us in the historic perspective? Nothing.”

Russian lawmakers pressed Mr. Putin to escalate the standoff with Kyiv. They sent him a resolution supporting the effective annexation of two Russian-backed separatist enclaves inside Ukraine that have been engaged in a bloody, eight-year standoff with the central government in Kyiv.

Mr. Putin did not commit to a full withdrawal of troops. He said Russia’s next moves will depend on how the standoff evolves.

‘A window’ to avoid war

The U.S. has flatly rejected Russia’s more overarching demands. The Biden administration gave no indication of rethinking its position, but officials made clear that they believe more diplomacy may bring a resolution and that Russia has a chance to end the crisis peacefully.

As part of high-stakes diplomacy, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Mr. Blinken said the U.S. remains “committed to the diplomatic path” and believes “a window remains to resolve the crisis peacefully,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a readout of the call.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is scheduled to meet this week with his counterparts in Europe, the Pentagon said. His trip is designed to show NATO solidarity in the face of Russia’s military buildup.

Despite Tuesday’s optimism, Ukrainian officials said two of its banks and its defense ministry had been hacked and that Russia was a likely culprit. Cybergangs with ties to the Russian government have been responsible in recent years for multiple attacks on major businesses and governmental entities, including some in the U.S., officials have said.

Furthermore, Ukrainian officials expressed doubt that Russia has truly started to pull back forces along their border.

Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba responded to the reported Russian pullback in a Twitter message. “We in Ukraine have a rule: We don’t believe what we hear, we believe what we see. If a real withdrawal follows these statements, we will believe in the beginning of a real de-escalation,” he said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that “so far, we have not seen … any signs of reduced Russian military presence on the borders of Ukraine.”

Russian military officials went out of their way to present at least the appearance of deescalation. The Russian Defense Ministry released photos of tanks and other military equipment being loaded onto railway platforms, though they did not provide details about where they were headed.

In multiple statements, Russian military officials said troops were moving away from the Ukrainian border.

“The units of the Southern and Western military districts, having completed their tasks, have already begun loading onto rail and road transport and will begin moving to their military garrisons today. Separate units will march on their own as part of military columns,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, said in a statement. He said some of the 30,000 Russian troops sent to Belarus, on Ukraine’s northern border, for military exercises would head home and the entire exercise would end as scheduled on Sunday.

Separately, the Russian military said it has ended drills in Crimea and those units will return to their permanent stations in Dagestan and North Ossetia. 

Those statements offer glimmers of hope, but the U.S. and NATO have threatened a new round of crushing economic sanctions if Mr. Putin moves ahead with an invasion. Mr. Biden reiterated the threat of sanctions Tuesday while addressing some of the Kremlin’s “security concerns” with a U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe.

“To the citizens of Russia, you are not our enemy,” Mr. Biden said. “The United States and NATO are not a threat to Russia. Ukraine is not threatening Russia. Neither the U.S. nor NATO have missiles in Ukraine. We do not have plans to put them there.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.