This satellite image released by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of troops and equipment remain in Brestsky training area in Brest, Belarus on February 16, 2022. (Photo by Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies / AFP)
by Aurélia END with David CLARK in Kyiv
WASHINGTON, D.C., United States (AFP) – The United States on Wednesday dismissed reports that Russia was withdrawing troops from Ukraine’s border, instead accusing Moscow of sending more soldiers as fears of an invasion grow.
Russia has increased its presence on the border with Ukraine by “as many as 7,000 troops,” some of whom arrived Wednesday, said a senior White House official, slamming Moscow’s announcement of a withdrawal as “false.”
“We continue to receive indications they could launch a false pretext at any moment to justify an invasion.”
The official, who requested anonymity, added that while Moscow has said it wants to reach a diplomatic solution, its actions “indicate otherwise.”
Earlier Wednesday, the United States and NATO joined Ukraine in saying there was no sign of Russian troops withdrawing after military movements in occupied Crimea fueled reports that the crisis could be abating.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky marked what he had declared “Day of Unity” by watching Ukrainian soldiers train with new Western-supplied anti-tank weapons near Rivne, west of the capital Kyiv.
He also visited the frontline city of Mariupol, wearing a military-style olive green coat.
This handout photograph taken and released by the Ukrainian Defence Ministry on February 16, 2022, shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) listening to explanations during a military drill outside the city of Rivne, northern Ukraine. (Photo by Handout / Ukrainian Defence ministry press-service / AFP)
“We are not afraid of anyone, of any enemies,” Zelensky said on a day that Western intelligence had warned Moscow could choose to invade. “We will defend ourselves.”
Despite images on Russian state media that were said to show Moscow’s forces winding up a major exercise in Crimea, 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. “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.
An Ukrainian Army T-64 tanks firing during a military drill outside the city of Rivne, northern Ukraine, on February 16, 2022. (Photo by Aris Messinis / AFP)
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, who hosted a meeting of alliance defense 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.”
‘Invasion force ready’
An Ukrainian frontier guard patrols along the border with Russia, some 40 km from the second largest Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, on February 16, 2022. (Photo by Sergey BOBOK / AFP)
On the reported Russian troop movements, he said: “So far we do not see any sign of de-escalation on the ground.
“Russia maintains a massive invasion force ready to attack with high-end capabilities from Crimea to Belarus.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz echoed Wednesday that “the risk of a further military aggression by Russia” remains “high,” according to a statement issued following a phone call with US President Joe 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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference with German Chancellor following their meeting over Ukraine security at the Kremlin, in Moscow, on February 15, 2022. – The Kremlin, earlier on February 15, 2022, confirmed a pullback of some Russian forces from Ukraine’s borders but said the move was planned and stressed Russia would continue to move troops across the country as it saw fit. (Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik / AFP)
But, backed by a threat of crippling US and EU economic sanctions, Western leaders are pushing for a negotiated settlement, and Moscow has signaled it will start to pull forces back.
In the latest such move, the Russian defense ministry said on Wednesday that 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.”
US slams invasion ‘pretext’
US soldiers disembark from a C-17 Globemaster cargo plane on the tarmac of Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport, south eastern Poland, on February 16, 2022. – Dozens of US paratroopers landed at Rzeszow Airport in Poland — part of a deployment of several thousand sent to bolster NATO’s eastern flank in response to tensions with Russia. (Photo by Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP) / ALTERNATIVE CROP
Meanwhile, the Pentagon said that three US Navy aircraft were intercepted by Russian planes in an “unprofessional” manner over the Mediterranean Sea last weekend.
The US State Department had said earlier that Russia was attempting to create a pretext for invading with unsupported claims of “genocide” and mass graves in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, which is controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
“Over the past several weeks, we’ve also seen Russian officials and Russian media plant numerous stories in the press, any one of which could be elevated to serve as a pretext for an invasion,” State Department Spokesman Ned Price said.
EU leaders, already gathered in Brussels for a summit with their African counterparts, are now to hold impromptu crisis talks Thursday on Russia and Ukraine.
A UN Security Council meeting is also set Thursday to discuss the crisis.
And US Vice President Kamala Harris will meet with Zelensky on the sidelines of the annual Munich Security Conference this weekend, a senior White House official said Wednesday.
(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 14, 2022 US Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during an event announcing that more than 10 million households are enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program, the nations largest ever broadband affordability program due to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, during at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House in Washington, DC. – US Vice President Kamala Harris will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the sidelines of the annual Munich Security Conference this week, a senior White House official said February 16, 2022. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)
Ukraine had said Tuesday the websites of the country’s defense ministry and armed forces, as well as private banks, had been hit by a cyberattack of the kind that US intelligence fears would precede a Russian attack.
“It cannot be excluded that the aggressor is resorting to dirty tricks,” Ukraine’s communications watchdog said, referring to Russia.
Kremlin spokesman Peskov denied that Moscow had any role in the cyber assault and accused Ukraine of “blaming Russia for everything.”
© Agence France-Presse