Russia’s Ministry of Defense stated Tuesday that some of Russia’s forces that had been gathered near its border with Ukraine in the past four months were being withdrawn to their bases. However, the U.S., its allies and the European Union did not rush to take the comments as evidence that Russia was, in fact deescalating. The buildup of well over 100,000 troops and a significant portion of Russia’s military hardware along Ukraine’s borders has drawn increasingly dire warnings from the United States of a possible imminent invasion.
The Russian government maintains that the Ukrainian buildup is not a threat and that it will allow its troops to return home after completing what Moscow claims are only military drills. The West has been waking up to the alarm of the largest buildup in ground forces and war machinery in Europe since the Cold War.
Not even 20 hours prior to Moscow’s announcement on Tuesday, a U.S. official told CBS News senior national security correspondent David Martin that some of the Russian hardware taking part in the drills had started to move into “attack positions” close to the Ukrainian border.
U.S. officials have not confirmed any Russian redeployments away from Ukraine’s border, but Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told reporters on Tuesday that some units that have been operating for weeks along the country’s southwest border with Ukraine, “having completed their tasks, have already begun loading onto rail and road transport and today they will begin moving to their military garrisons. As part of military columns, individual units will move on their own. “
The ministry did not provide numbers and it wasn’t clear where the movement might take place along Russia’s long border to Ukraine. Russian news agency Interfax cited the country’s Southern district command, however, as saying that some forces were being moved from Crimea, the southern peninsula of Ukraine that Russia annexed in 2014, back to bases in southern Russia’s Dagestan and North Ossetia regions.
If confirmed, the movements could be taken as the first step by Russia to deescalate a crisis that has brought the world closer to a major conflict in Europe than it has been in decades. President Joe Biden has warned that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine could leave 100,000 civilians dead and fundamentally change the world.
The U.S. and its NATO allies have heaped pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government to take a step back from the brink of war, threatening a “swift and severe” response to any invasion of Ukraine, in the form of international sanctions.
After the Russian defense ministry’s announcement on Tuesday, Ukraine’s foreign minister said his country’s diplomatic efforts with the U.S. and European allies had managed to ward off a Russian invasion.
We and our allies managed to stop Russia from further escalation. “It is already February and diplomacy continues to work.” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that it was the middle of February. According to Interfax Ukraine, he stated that Russia’s claim of pulling back from its borders must be confirmed.
” “If we see withdrawal, then we will believe it in deescalation.”
It was not clear how significant Russia’s initial step back from the border — if confirmed at all — would be considered by Washington or NATO. About 30,000 Russian forces are still in Belarus on Ukraine’s northwest border for joint drills with Belarusian troops, and they have been operating within 30 miles of the frontier. In total, Russia is believed to have at least 130,000 troops massed around Ukraine’s borders, according to two sources who spoke to CBS News on Monday, citing information available to them at the time.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated that while diplomacy was continuing to be a positive sign, there were still concerns about Russia’s ability to mobilize troops around Ukraine’s borders. He also stressed that NATO considered Russia ready for an attack against Ukraine.
” The movement of Russian capability doesn’t constitute real deescalation,” Stoltenberg stated, pointing out previous moves of military equipment around Russian soil. We need to see a significant, enduring withdrawal from troops, forces and heavy equipment.
U.S. Ambassador Julianne Smith spoke to journalists from Brussels on Tuesday. “
” You may recall that in December there were similar claims from Moscow that they were deescalating, but facts on the ground didn’t support this claim. Smith stated. We want to understand their meaning of deescalation, and to confirm that it is indeed what’s actually happening.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson accused Russia of sending mixed signals. He welcomed what he called “signs of diplomatic opening” but warned that the most recent intelligence was not encouraging. “
Johnson said Russian forces were building field hospitals near Ukraine’s borders, and more battalions were moving closer to the borders, which he said could “only be construed as preparation for an invasion.”
American officials have warned for weeks that Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine in a variety of ways, including a ground assault from Belarus or Russian soil, a major cyberattack, or a so-called “false-flag” attack staged to look like an assault by Ukrainian forces against pro-Russian fighters that Moscow might use as a pretext to launch an invasion.
Russia backs separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, where the rebels have fought a simmering war with Ukrainian troops since Putin last sent his forces into Ukraine in 2014, unilaterally annexing the Crimean Peninsula in the process.
Earlier on Tuesday, a Russian envoy to the European Union was quoted as saying that Russia would “respond” if any Russian “citizens” were killed anywhere, including in Donbas. The Kremlin dismissed the Washington-led warnings about an imminent Russian attack against Ukraine as dangerous “hysteria”. On Tuesday, Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson mocked the U.S.’s suggestion that it knew of Moscow’s plans.
Peskov questioned reporters about the publication of “exact times” of the outbreak of war.
Russia kept the pressure up, however. On Tuesday, Russia’s parliament approved legislation calling on it to recognize the independence of Ukraine from two Donbas regions held by prorussian rebels. It would be a hugely provocative move and likely lead to an escalation of the nearly-eight-year-old conflict in Donbas, but Peskov said Putin had made no final decisions on whether to back the initiative.
Smith was the American ambassador to NATO. He stated Tuesday that Russia’s recognition of the separatist regions would be “a clear violation” of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Also, it would likely lead to an escalation. And he said that the United States would closely monitor this. But the West continued its diplomatic blitz. On Tuesday, the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Putin met in Moscow. This was just a day after his meeting in Kyiv with Ukraine’s President. Peskov said that the talks between Putin and Scholz would be long as the two discuss security guarantees and “unprecedented tensions” in Europe. It was clear that there was some hope Tuesday in Ukraine’s capital, with many people trapped in the middle of the conflict between east and west. It was unclear whether Washington would consider Russia’s move as an acceptance of the possibility of a catastrophic war.
CBS News’ Olivia Gazis in Washington contributed to this report.
Tucker Reals, CBSNews.com’s foreign editor is based in the CBS News London Bureau.