President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Russia was sending some troops back to base after completing drills and that while he is open to further negotiations on the Ukraine crisis, Moscow’s security demands were an “unconditional priority.”
Russia’s claims about troop movements were met with skepticism from Western officials, who said they had seen no evidence that any partial withdrawal had begun.
United States President Joe Biden told reporters Tuesday that the US has “not yet verified the Russian military units are returning to their home bases,” saying that they “remain very much in a threatening position.”
Speaking earlier at a news conference in Moscow alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin said he continued to view Western deterrence measures as a “direct and immediate threat to national security.”
“The responses we received from the United States and NATO members to security guarantees proposals, in our opinion, do not meet the three basic Russian requirements,” Putin said.
“We are ready to continue this joint work further. We are also ready to follow the negotiation track but all issues must be considered as a whole, without being separated from the main Russian proposals, the implementation of which is an unconditional priority for us.”
Biden said Tuesday that Russia has amassed “more than 150,000 troops circling Ukraine and Belarus, and along Ukraine’s border,” underscoring fears from Western and Ukrainian intelligence officials that an invasion could be imminent.
Among the Kremlin’s demands are a guarantee that Ukraine will never be permitted to join NATO and that the alliance roll back its expansion in Eastern Europe. The US and its NATO allies have repeatedly said such proposals are non-starters.
Putin also invoked the word “genocide” Tuesday to describe the situation in territories in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatist militants, calling out the West for what he insinuated was a double standard for justifying military intervention. Claims of discrimination against Russian-speaking populations in Ukraine were one of the justifications Russia used when it annexed Crimea in 2014.
Putin’s comments came hours after the Russian defense ministry said some troops from its Southern and Western military districts had begun to return to their home stations.
The announcement did not specify where those troops were permanently based, where they had been exercising, or how many of them were withdrawing, and it was viewed with skepticism by officials from Ukraine, the US and NATO, who called on Russia to provide proof it was willing to deescalate the crisis on the border.
“Various statements are constantly being made from the Russian Federation, so we already have a rule: ‘Do not hear and then believe. But do see and then believe,’” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told a news conference in Kyiv. “When we see the withdrawal, then we will believe in de-escalation.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance had not yet seen “any sign of deescalation on the ground,” but added that “signs from Moscow that diplomacy should continue” were grounds for cautious optimism.