Flurry of diplomacy amid hope Ukraine war can be avoided
Moscow: As the West warily eyed Russian troop movements near Ukraine, European leaders headed to the region on Tuesday for last-minute diplomacy, buoyed by signals from the Kremlin that there was a still way to head off a feared invasion and avoid war.
After weeks of rising tensions over Ukraine, the tenor changed Monday, when Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated that Russia was ready to keep talking about the security grievances that have led to the crisis.
In what could be another sign that the Kremlin would like to lower the temperature, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday that some units participating in military exercises would begin returning to their bases.
It wasn’t immediately clear where exactly these troops were deployed or how many were leaving — and the news came a day after Western officials said some forces and military hardware were moving toward the border, muddying the picture.
Russia has massed more than 130,000 troops near Ukraine, sparking the fears of an invasion.
And while the US agreed that there was still a possibility of a diplomatic path out, Washington, London and other allies have kept up their warnings that those forces could move on Ukraine at any moment.
Russia denies it has any plans to invade Ukraine, despite placing troops on Ukraine’s borders to the north, south and east and launching massive military drills nearby.
The new glimmers of hope accompanied a flurry of diplomacy. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz planned to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, a day after he sat down with Ukraine’s leader in Kyiv. Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau of Poland, one of Russia’s most strident European critics, was also in Moscow on Tuesday to meet Lavrov, while Ukraine’s foreign minister hosted his Italian counterpart.
Lavorv’s comments came at a made-for-TV meeting with Putin and seemed designed to send a message to the world about the Russian leader’s position. The foreign minister argued that Moscow should hold more talks, despite the West’s refusal to consider Russia’s main demands.
The talks “can’t go on indefinitely, but I would suggest to continue and expand them at this stage,” Lavrov said, noting that Washington has offered to discuss limits for missile deployments in Europe, restrictions on military drills and other confidence-building measures.
Moscow wants guarantees that NATO will not allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members.
It also wants the alliance to halt weapons deployments to Ukraine and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe.
Lavrov said possibilities for talks “are far from being exhausted.”
Putin noted that the West could try to draw Russia into “endless talks” and questioned whether there is still a chance to reach agreement.
Lavrov replied that his ministry would not allow the US and its allies to stonewall Russia’s main requests.
The US reacted coolly.
“The path for diplomacy remains available if Russia chooses to engage constructively,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
“However, we are clear-eyed about the prospects of that, given the steps Russia is taking on the ground in plain sight.”
One possible off-ramp emerged this week: Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, pointed at a possibility of Ukraine shelving its NATO bid — an objective that is written into its constitution — if it would avert war with Russia.
Prystaiko later appeared to back away from the idea, but the fact that it was raised at all suggests it is being discussed behind closed doors.
Even amid the hopeful signs, the US and European countries kept up their warnings.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss reiterated Tuesday that the danger of an invasion still exists, telling Sky News that it “could be imminent.”
But she added that “there is still time for Vladimir Putin to step away from the brink.”
Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt issued a similar warning.
US officials have said the Russian military continued apparent attack preparations along Ukraine’s borders.
A US defense official said small numbers of Russian ground units have been moving out of larger assembly areas for several days, taking up positions closer to the Ukrainian border at what would be departure points if Putin launched an invasion.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss information not publicly released. CBS News was first to report on the movement of the units.
Maxar Technologies, a commercial satellite imagery company that has been monitoring the Russian buildup, reported increased Russian military activity in Belarus, Crimea and western Russia, including the arrival of helicopters, ground-attack aircraft and fighter-bomber jets at forward locations.
The photos taken over a 48-hour period also show ground forces leaving their garrisons and combat units moving into convoy formation.
Still, Ukrainian security and defense council chief Oleksiy Danilov downplayed the threat of invasion but warned of the risk of “internal destabilisation” by unspecified forces.
“Today we do not see that a large-scale offensive by the Russian Federation can take place either on (February) 16th or the 17th,” he told reporters.
“We are aware of the risks that exist in the territory of our country. But the situation is absolutely under control.”
As if to show defiance, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Wednesday would be a “day of national unity,” calling on the country to display the blue-and-yellow flag and sing the national anthem in the face of “hybrid threats.”
“It is not the first threat the strong Ukrainian people have faced,” Zelenskyy said Monday evening in a video address to the nation.
“We’re calm. We’re strong. We’re together.”
The country is preparing nonetheless.
Kyiv residents received letters from the mayor urging them “to defend your city,” and signs appeared in apartment buildings indicating the nearest bomb shelter.
The capital has about 4,500 such sites, including underground parking garages, subway stations and basements, the mayor said.
Dr. Tamara Ugrich said she stocked up on grains and canned food and prepared an emergency suitcase.
“I don’t believe in war, but on TV the tension is growing every day, and it’s getting harder and harder to keep calm,” she said. “The more we are told not to panic, the more nervous people become.”