Nato says ongoing diplomacy gives grounds for ‘cautious optimism’ over Ukraine
Russia’s defence ministry announced on Tuesday that some units participating in military exercises would begin returning to their bases. Photograph: Russian Defence Ministry Press Service via AP
Russia’s continued engagement in diplomatic channels gives “grounds for cautious optimism”, Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg has said, adding however that despite Russian claims there were no signs yet of de-escalation on the ground on Ukraine’s border.
The Russian government said on Tuesday some troops had begun returning to their bases, and dismissed western warnings of an imminent fresh invasion as “propaganda”, as footage released by its defence ministry showed tanks and armoured cars being loaded onto railway transport.
Tensions have soared over a large-scale build-up of Russian troops close to Ukraine’s borders and Mr Stoltenberg said the alliance had yet to see evidence that troops were indeed pulling back.
“So far, we have not seen any de-escalation on the ground from the Russian side,” Mr Stoltenberg, a Norwegian former prime minister who has led the military alliance since 2014, told reporters.
“What we have seen before is that they go in with heavy equipment and troops, take out some troops, and then they can easily move them back in again after just a few days”, in a way that would allow for an invasion of Ukraine with “hardly any warning time at all”, he warned.
Nevertheless, Mr Stoltenberg said there was “some grounds for cautious optimism” due to the readiness of Moscow to “continue to engage in a diplomatic effort”.
The Russian forces gathered on Ukraine’s north, east, and southern borders include artillery, air defence, missiles, and support structures with troops now numbering 130,000, according to estimates by the United States.
Moscow blames the West for provoking tensions and casts its troop movements as normal exercises, and dismisses warnings of an invasion by Nato countries as a deliberate attempt to increase tensions.
“February 15, 2022 will go down in history as the day western war propaganda failed. Humiliated and destroyed without a single shot fired,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova predicted.
But Britain’s foreign secretary Liz Truss said a full-scale withdrawal would be required to back up Moscow’s claim that it has no plans to invade, and warned that currently Russian troops could reach the Ukrainian capital Kyiv “very, very quickly”.
“In terms of the timing of an attack, it could be imminent,” Ms Truss said on Tuesday.
Defence ministers of Nato member countries are set to meet on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss how to respond, with options including sending more troops to countries such as Bulgaria and Romania to reinforce the alliance’s eastern flank.
Russia previously requested for troops and equipment to be removed from Bulgaria and Romania as part of its security demand that the alliance be reduced to its pre-1997 size. Both countries joined Nato in 2004.
The tensions over Ukraine, a conduit country for Russian gas, are partly responsible for soaring energy prices that have squeezed living standards across Europe, piling political pressure on to governments. Gas supplies were high on the agenda as Germany chancellor Olaf Scholz and Russian president Vladimir Putin met in Moscow on Tuesday.
Germany is a key player as Russia’s second-largest trade partner after China, and has been urged by western allies to reconsider its Nord Stream 2 project, a gas pipeline to Russia that bypasses Ukraine and is almost ready to launch.
Separately on Tuesday, the European Commission set out proposals to encourage greater European Union co-operation on defence, including VAT discounts for military equipment purchased jointly by more than one EU member state, a policy aimed to increase interoperability of equipment.
EU defence planning was revived with a new impetus last year after such ambitions had long stalled. A senior EU official said that while the plans were not related to the situation in Ukraine, it was a good illustration of why the strategy made sense.