As Russia Welcomes Talks, Biden Warns Invasion Is Still Possible
MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin said on Tuesday that Russia would “partially pull back troops” deployed near Ukraine and was seeking a “diplomatic path” to resolving a tense standoff with the West, while President Biden welcomed further negotiations but warned that a Russian invasion “remains very much a possibility.’’
It was the second day in a row that Moscow appeared to swerve away from confrontation over Ukraine, following its declaration on Monday that diplomatic options were “far from exhausted.’’
“We intend to and will strive to reach agreement with our partners on the questions that we posed, in order to solve them by taking a diplomatic path,” Mr. Putin said, standing alongside Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany at the Kremlin.
Mr. Putin’s willingness to continue discussions was welcomed hours later by President Biden, who vowed in afternoon remarks from the White House to “give the diplomacy every chance” to prevent a Russian invasion.
“As long as there is hope of a diplomatic resolution that prevents the use of force and avoids incredible human suffering that would follow,” Mr. Biden said, “we will pursue it.”
Mr. Biden cautioned, however, that Russian forces remain “in a threatening position” — an assessment that echoed the dire warning issued by the Pentagon just four days ago, that Russia could launch an attack as early as Wednesday.
The urgency of that warning seemed to recede on Tuesday as Mr. Putin adopted a more conciliatory tone and announced the intention to pull back troops. But much of Russia’s menacing force near Ukraine’s border remained in place, and Western officials said it was far too soon to exhale over the danger that Mr. Putin could launch a large-scale war. They also said it was too early to assess Moscow’s claim that it was pulling troops back from Ukraine’s border.
“The Russian defense ministry reported today that some military units are leaving the positions near Ukraine. That would be good,” Mr. Biden said. “But we have not yet verified that.’’
The Biden administration has threatened severe economic sanctions in the event of an invasion, while offering negotiations on some of Russia’s security concerns.
The carrot-and-stick approach, and the mixed signals from Moscow, illustrated the gamesmanship and the high-stakes rhetorical tactics that have marked the crisis over Russia’s troop buildup. The United States has been declassifying intelligence on Russia’s plans and sounding urgent warnings about a looming attack, in what American officials describe as a strategy meant to deter Mr. Putin from going through with an invasion.
Mr. Putin, by contrast, has kept his true intentions a mystery, mixing threats and military moves with optimistic appraisals about the potential for diplomacy — statements that have grown louder in recent days. Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov spoke with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Tuesday and said the West had “responded positively” to Russia’s initiatives.
At the same time, the Russian leader and other senior officials on Tuesday made it clear that they saw the military threat as a tool for forcing the West to recognize a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe — and that they were prepared to continue to keep the pressure on as negotiations continued.
Mr. Lavrov said he was open to American proposals such as negotiations over the placement of missiles in Europe; the outcome, he said, could be a “very decent, comprehensive package result.”
Asked on Tuesday how Russia would act next, Mr. Putin responded with a slight smile: “According to the plan.”
He said Russia would seek to achieve its key aims — centered on halting NATO expansion and forcing the alliance to draw down its military presence in Eastern Europe — peacefully, but that the outcome of the process “does not only depend on us.”
American officials have dismissed those demands as non-starters, and speaking from the East Room of the White House, Mr. Biden promised not to “sacrifice basic principles” that accord countries a right to choose their own alliances.
The president also reached out to the Russian people, after warning that a war would cause great human suffering. “The United States and NATO are not a threat to Russia,” he said, adding: “You are not our enemy.”
Despite the optimism Tuesday, the diplomatic path ahead was far from clear. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it would soon send, and make public, a 10-page response to security proposals that the United States and NATO submitted last month. Italy’s foreign minister was scheduled to visit Moscow on Wednesday.
But beyond that, after a flurry of high-level Western phone calls and meetings with Mr. Putin and Mr. Lavrov, the diplomatic calendar appeared empty. Russia has said it will skip the Munich Security Conference this weekend, which had been a marquee annual event for Western officials to sit down with their Russian counterparts.
“We don’t know what happens next and how things will continue,” Mr. Scholz said after meeting for three hours with Mr. Putin. “But we can definitely say: there are enough starting points for things to develop well.”
Russia is demanding a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO, which leaders of the alliance describe as no more than a far-off prospect that is not currently under consideration. Ukrainian officials suggested this week that their country’s constitutionally enshrined aspiration to join NATO could be up for negotiation in order to avert war.
Mr. Scholz, who took over as chancellor in December, hinted that finding agreement among Russia, Ukraine and NATO on that issue could be a way out of the crisis.
“Everyone must step back a bit here and make it clear to themselves that we just can’t have a possible military conflict over a question that is not on the agenda,” Mr. Scholz told German reporters in Moscow after leaving the Kremlin. “It’s now our task to find a path that is OK for everyone in terms of their own positions and views.”
The White House warned last week that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen “any time,” including before the Winter Olympics end on Feb. 20.
On Tuesday, Russia appeared to relish an opportunity to prove the United States wrong. A Defense Ministry spokesman delivered a statement saying that some troops near Ukraine had “completed their tasks” and were heading back to their bases; state television aired footage of tanks being loaded onto rail cars.
Understand the Escalating Tensions Over Ukraine
A brewing conflict. Antagonism between Ukraine and Russia has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, annexing Crimea and whipping up a rebellion in the east. A tenuous cease-fire was reached in 2015, but peace has been elusive.
A spike in hostilities. Russia has been gradually building up forces near its border with Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s messaging toward its neighbor has hardened. Concern grew in late October, when Ukraine used an armed drone to attack a howitzer operated by Russian-backed separatists.
Preventing an invasion. Russia called the strike a destabilizing act that violated the cease-fire agreement, raising fears of a new intervention in Ukraine. Since then, the United States, NATO and Russia have been engaged in a whirlwind of diplomacy aimed at averting that outcome.
The Kremlin’s position. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has increasingly portrayed NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to his country, said that Moscow’s growing military presence on the Ukrainian border was a response to Ukraine’s deepening partnership with the alliance.
Rising tension. Western countries have tried to maintain a dialogue with Moscow. But the Biden administration warned that the U.S. could throw its weight behind Ukraine in case of an invasion. France, Germany and Poland also warned Russia of consequences if it launched incursions into Ukraine.
Soon after, Mr. Lavrov predicted that the West would soon be taking credit for staving off an invasion that Russia in fact never planned, while Mr. Putin’s spokesman said the president had started jokingly asking “whether the exact time the war will start has been published somewhere.”
Western officials said it was too soon to tell whether the announced pullback would reduce the menace on Ukraine’s borders, but in Brussels, Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO, said signals from Moscow gave grounds for “cautious optimism.”
But it was also clear that Mr. Putin could maintain pressure on the West and on Ukraine without firing a shot — including by new military moves or other means like cyberattacks. On Tuesday evening, Ukraine’s defense ministry and army, as well as the interfaces of the country’s two largest banks, were hit by cyberattacks that caused some websites to go down and caused problems for customers seeking to withdraw cash.
And in Moscow, the Kremlin-controlled lower house of Parliament, the State Duma, gave Mr. Putin another bargaining chip by voting to ask him to recognize the Russian-backed separatist territories in Ukraine’s east as independent states. Such a move would open the door for Russia to officially move its troops into the region, and could spark new fighting because those unrecognized states claim more territory as rightfully theirs than they currently control.
In his news conference with Mr. Scholz, Mr. Putin repeated unfounded claims that Ukraine is carrying out a “genocide” against Russian speakers in the region, known as the Donbas, but indicated that he would not immediately recognize the territories’ independence.
Instead, Mr. Putin said he would keep pushing for implementation of the Minsk peace accords negotiated by Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France in 2015. In their Russian interpretation, the accords would in effect rule out NATO membership for Ukraine by allowing Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine to veto foreign-policy decisions.
In Ukraine, worries about a possible Russian invasion remained.
“When we see the withdrawal, we will believe in de-escalation,” the foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told reporters.
Western officials and analysts said the threat to Ukraine remained significant, and that it was too early to make firm conclusions about a possible drawdown without more information about which units were being sent back to their bases. The Russian Defense Ministry only announced a withdrawal of units from the country’s Western and Southern Military Districts, whose usual bases are the closest to Ukraine, so the units could easily return to the border region.
Units from the Central and Eastern districts, which are some of Russia’s most advanced, remain deployed and in recent days have arrayed themselves in attack formations in positions within a few dozen miles of the Ukraine border, according to satellite imagery.
“I wouldn’t read too much into this yet,” Rob Lee, an expert on Russia’s military, said of Moscow’s declaration that it was pulling back troops.
Mr. Lee, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Ph.D. candidate at King’s College in London, and others noted that Russia has in the past announced troop withdrawals only to leave weaponry and equipment in place for easy redeployment. It did this after a similar buildup near Ukraine last April as well as after large military exercises in late summer.
Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow and Michael D. Shear from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Valerie Hopkins and Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, Ukraine; Michael Schwirtz Schwirtz from Kherson, Ukraine; Steven Erlanger from Brussels; and Katrin Bennhold from Berlin.