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No sign of Russia pullback, say US, NATO and Ukraine

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (centre) listening to explanations during a military drill outside the city of Rivne, northern Ukraine. UKRAINIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY/AFP

No sign of Russia pullback, say US, NATO and Ukraine

The US and NATO joined Ukraine on February 16 saying there was no sign of Russian troops withdrawing, after military movements in occupied Crimea fuelled reports that the crisis could be abating.

President Volodymyr Zelensky watched Ukrainian soldiers training with new Western-supplied anti-tank weapons near Rivne, west of the capital Kyiv.

He also visited the frontline city of Mariupol to mark what he had declared Ukraine’s “Day of Unity”, wearing a military-style olive green coat.

“We are not afraid of anyone, of any enemies,” Zelensky said on a day that Western intelligence had warned Moscow could choose to invade Ukraine. “We will defend ourselves.”

The rhetoric and demonstration of Ukrainian firepower contrasted with images on Russian state media that were said to show Moscow’s forces bringing an end to a major exercise in Crimea.

But Zelensky said there was no evidence of Russians pulling back.

“We are seeing small rotations. I would not call these rotations the withdrawal of forces by Russia,” he said in televised comments, adding: “We see no change.”

In Rivne, missiles pounded practice targets, while in Kyiv hundreds of civilians marched in a stadium with an enormous national banner.

Russia’s huge build-up of troops, missiles and warships around Ukraine has been billed as Europe’s worst security risk since the Cold War.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, who hosted a meeting of alliance defence ministers in Brussels, also dismissed suggestions that the threat on Ukraine’s border had diminished.

“Moscow has made it clear that it is prepared to contest the fundamental principles that have underpinned our security for decades and to do so by using force,” he said.

“I regret to say that this is the new normal in Europe.”

On the reported Russian troop movements, he said: “So far we do not see any sign of de-escalation on the ground; no withdrawals of troops or equipment.

“Russia maintains a massive invasion force ready to attack with high-end capabilities from Crimea to Belarus.”

US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on February 16 also warned that no significant withdrawal of Russian troops from the Ukraine border had been observed.

“The risk of a further military aggression by Russia against Ukraine remains high,” according to a statement issued by the German chancellery following a phone call between Scholz and Biden.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded Ukraine be forbidden from pursuing its ambition to join NATO and wants to redraw the security map of eastern Europe, rolling back Western influence.

But, backed by a threat of crippling US and EU economic sanctions, Western leaders are pushing for a negotiated settlement, and Moscow has signalled it will start to pull forces back.

In the latest such move, on Wednesday the Russian defence ministry said military drills in Crimea – a Ukrainian region that Moscow annexed in 2014 – had ended and that troops were returning to their garrisons.

While Washington has demanded verifiable evidence of de-escalation, Biden has nevertheless vowed to push for a diplomatic solution.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov welcomed this, telling reporters: “It is positive that the US president is also noting his readiness to start serious negotiations.”

Meanwhile, the Pentagon said that three US Navy aircraft were intercepted by Russian planes in an “unprofessional” manner over the Mediterranean Sea last weekend.

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