Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Moscow is ready for talks with the US and NATO on missile deployment limits and military transparency, a second sign of a potential thaw in the conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine.
Just hours before, Russia announced that it would withdraw some troops from military exercises that had sparked fears of an invasion of Ukraine.
Putin said after talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that, while the US and NATO rejected Moscow’s demand to keep Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries out of NATO, halt weapons deployments near Russian borders, and withdraw alliance forces from Eastern Europe, they agreed to discuss some security measures already proposed by Russia.
Putin stated that Russia is willing to engage in talks on limiting the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe, transparency in drills, and other confidence-building measures, but he emphasized the importance of the West heeding Russia’s main demands.
On Tuesday morning, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, as efforts to de-escalate the military situation surrounding Ukraine intensified.
The phone call with Russia’s foreign minister came just hours after Moscow announced that it had begun withdrawing some troops from military exercises near Ukraine’s border.
A senior State Department official provided little information on the call, other than the fact that Blinken and Lavrov agreed to keep in touch when they last spoke. According to the White House, President Joe Biden spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron from 10:11 to 11 a.m., around the same time as Lavrov’s call.
Russia’s defense ministry claimed Tuesday that it had begun withdrawing some troop units participating in military exercises near Ukraine’s border, but provided no specifics on where the troops were withdrawing from or how many there were.
Ukrainian officials said it was too early to tell whether Moscow’s announcement represented a genuine shift in tone after weeks of tensions over fears of a Russian invasion.
“As with everything Russia,” Deputy National Security Adviser Daleep Singh told reporters on Tuesday morning. “We’re going to monitor everything that we see on the ground very carefully. And of course, our goal is peace and to uphold the principle that you can’t redraw borders by force.”
“If there’s a troop or a tank that crosses the border, we’re ready to impose the most severe sanctions ever levied on Russia in lockstep with our allies and partners,” he said.
The apparent development came a day after Russia’s foreign minister indicated that the country was willing to continue talking about the security grievances that led to the Ukraine crisis – Europe’s worst East-West standoff in decades – and western officials warned that an attack could happen at any time, with Wednesday being designated as a possible invasion day.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly accused the West of exaggerating Russia’s invasion threat, claiming that Ukraine’s intelligence did not indicate an imminent threat. The presence of more than 130,000 Russian troops near Ukraine has fueled fears of an invasion. Russia denies having any plans to invade.
Ukraine’s leaders have expressed skepticism about Russia’s alleged retreat. “Russia makes a variety of statements all the time,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. “That’s why we have a rule: we won’t believe what we hear, but we will believe what we see. We’ll believe in de-escalation when we see troops withdrawing.”
Moscow wants assurances that NATO will not admit Ukraine or other former Soviet republics to the military alliance. It also wants the alliance to stop sending weapons to Ukraine and withdraw its forces from Eastern Europe.
The Kremlin has characterized the United States’ warnings of an impending attack as “hysteria” and “absurdity,” and many Russians believe that Washington is deliberately instilling fear and inflaming tensions in order to spark a conflict for domestic reasons. Zelenskyy declared Wednesday would be a “day of national unity,” calling on the country to display the blue-and-yellow flag and sing the national anthem.