President Joe Biden said Thursday that he remains “skeptical” that Russian President Vladimir Putin will withdraw all of his forces from around the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, suggesting the United States is still working to fully understand the Russian military’s next moves as the war enters a new phase.
“Thus far there is no clear evidence that he’s pulling all of his forces out of Kyiv,” Biden told reporters at the White House.
Biden said, “There’s also evidence that he is beefing up his troops down in the Donbas area” – a region of Ukraine where Putin has recognized two separatist territories as independent states. “Depending on your view of Putin. I’m a little skeptical,” he added.
The Russian Ministry of Defense had said Tuesday that it has decided to “drastically reduce hostilities” in the Kyiv and Chernigov directions, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said, according to state media RIA.
However, earlier Thursday, a US defense official told reporters that Russian forces have continued to focus their strikes on Ukraine in four areas, including the capital city.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Thursday that a “small number” of Russian troops are “beginning to reposition” and, while “it’s not exactly clear” where the troops are going, the US does not “see any indication that they’re going to be sent home.”
The best assessment that the US has is that the Russian troops will probably reposition into Belarus to be refit and resupplied in order to be used “elsewhere in Ukraine,” Kirby added.
The US has seen some Russian troops departing from the Chernobyl plant facility in Ukraine, Kirby added. Those troops are “leaving to the north to go back again towards Belarus,” Kirby said.
Amid the repositioning, the White House is maintaining that there are no plans for Biden and Putin to speak. Any conversation between the two men, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said on Thursday, would require serious de-escalation by Russians in Ukraine – setting a high bar for re-engagement.
US intel says Putin was misled by his military advisers
The US government on Wednesday revealed declassified intelligence indicating Putin was led astray by military advisers about how poorly the Russian military has been performing in Ukraine and how the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions. Bedingfield said at the time that the US intelligence community also has information indicating that the Russian leader has become aware of the misinformation, leading to a rift between him and his top defense officials.
US government officials have expressed confidence in the intelligence, with Bedingfield saying that Putin is being misled “because his senior advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth.”
Responding to the US intelligence claims, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov suggested the US is failing to understand what’s going on in Moscow, according to Russian state news agency TASS.
“To our regret, and even concern, neither the Department of State nor the Pentagon have authentic information about what is happening in the Kremlin. They just do not understand what is happening in the Kremlin. They do not understand Russian President Vladimir Putin. They do not understand the mechanism of decision-making, and they do not understand the style of our work,” Peskov said on Thursday.
Biden later Thursday said there’s some indication that Putin is isolating himself and punishing some of his advisers, but added that the US doesn’t have much hard evidence to say that with certainty.
When CNN’s MJ Lee asked the President how badly Putin is being misinformed by his advisers, Biden responded: “That’s an open question. There’s a lot of speculation, but he seems to be – I’m not saying this with a certainty – he seems to be self-isolating and there’s some indication that he has … fired or put under house arrest some of his advisers.”
“But I don’t want to put too much stock in that at this time, because we don’t have that much hard evidence,” he added.
Biden’s comments came after he announced a two-part plan to provide relief for Americans at the pump that began when Russian oil was sidelined and increase American energy independence. As part of the plan, he announced the unprecedented release of oil from US reserves and steps to spur the domestic production of critical minerals needed to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles and long-term energy storage.
The Strategic Petroleum Reserve release would amount to 180 million barrels of oil, roughly 1 million barrels per day, according to Biden.
This story has been updated with additional reporting on Thursday.
CNN’s Ellie Kaufman and Zahra Ullah contributed to this report.