By Ken Bredemeier and Anita Powell*
U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday that Washington believes a Russian invasion of Ukraine is “still very much a possibility,” and he appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to continue talks — or risk severe consequences.
“World War II was a war of necessity,” Biden said. “But if Russia attacks Ukraine, it would be a war of choice, or a war without cause or reason. I say these things not to provoke but to speak the truth, because the truth matters. Accountability matters. If Russia does invade in the days and weeks ahead, the human cost for Ukraine will be immense, and the strategic costs for Russia will also be immense. If Russia attacks Ukraine, it will be met with overwhelming international condemnation. The world will not forget that Russia chose needless death and destruction. Invading Ukraine will prove to be a self-inflicted wound. The United States and our allies and partners will respond decisively.”
On Tuesday, Putin said he is ready for negotiations with the U.S. and its NATO allies over missile deployments and military exercises in Europe, after Moscow announced it is withdrawing some troops from along the Ukraine border.
“That would be good,” Biden said, echoing skepticism voiced by Ukrainian and NATO officials, “but we have not yet verified that. We have not yet verified the Russian military units are returning to their own bases. Indeed, our analysts indicate that they remain very much in a threatening position. And the fact remains right now Russia has more than 150,000 troops encircling Ukraine and Belarus and along Ukraine’s border.”
And if Russia takes action, he said — even through a virtual invasion — Biden warned of steep consequences.
“We’re not seeking direct confrontation with Russia,” Biden said. “I have been clear that if Russia targets Americans in Ukraine, we will respond forcefully. If Russia attacks the United States or our allies through asymmetric means, like disruptive cyberattacks against our companies, or critical infrastructure, we are prepared to respond.”
Putin, speaking after meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Kremlin, said he is willing to engage with the West even though it has continued to reject Moscow’s key demands to rule out possible NATO membership for Ukraine and other former Soviet states and pull back Western troops in Eastern Europe closest to Russia.
The Russian leader said Moscow would attempt to develop confidence-building measures with NATO, while still emphasizing that the West must pay attention to its main demands.
In Washington, Biden addressed the fast-moving developments in a mid-afternoon speech.
Putin’s agreement for more diplomacy with the West and the withdrawal of an undisclosed number of Russian troops after they completed training near Ukraine buoyed hopes that a feared imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine would be averted.
Scholz said he agrees with Moscow that diplomatic options are “far from exhausted.” The announcement of troops being pulled back is a “good signal,” he said, adding that he hopes that “more will follow.”
But NATO and Ukrainian officials said they had yet to see evidence of a withdrawal on the ground.
Russia did not say how many of the estimated 130,000 troops it has amassed to the north, east and south of Ukraine are being moved out after a buildup that has led the U.S. and its allies to warn of a Russian invasion of the one-time Soviet republic that could occur at any moment.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “We’ve always said the troops will return to their bases after the exercises are over. This is the case this time as well.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that the West’s main military alliance welcomes signs Moscow may be willing to continue diplomatic talks over European security and the Ukraine stalemate and move troops away from Ukraine’s border.
“This gives grounds for cautious optimism,” Stoltenberg said. “But so far we have not seen any sign of de-escalation on the ground from the Russian side.”
He said Russia has often left military equipment behind after exercises, leaving the opportunity for forces to regroup.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba voiced skepticism about the Russian troop movement as well.
“We in Ukraine have a rule: we don’t believe what we hear, we believe what we see,” Kuleba said. “If a real withdrawal follows these statements, we will believe in the beginning of a real de-escalation.
On Monday, U.S. Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said that even in the last two days, Putin “has added military capability along that border with Ukraine and in Belarus. He is exercising some of those units on the ground there in the south as well as his naval units in the Black Sea.”
“So, he continues to add to his readiness. He continues to give himself more options, should he pursue a military path here,” Kirby said. “He continues to do the things that you would expect one to do if one was planning on a major military action.”
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said large-scale drills near Ukraine will continue, but that some units of the southern and western military districts had completed their exercises and started returning to base. The troop movements could not immediately be confirmed.
“As the training comes to an end, the troops, as usual, will march back to their home stations,” the spokesman said. “Units from the southern and the western military districts that completed their tasks already have started loading on trains and motor vehicles. They will start moving to their home bases. Individual units will march on their own in military columns.”
The Russian announcement about the troop movement came amid continued efforts by the U.S. and its Western allies to reduce the threat of warfare.
Scholz met with Putin a day after discussing the crisis with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv.
Scholz called for a peaceful resolution of the standoff. In Moscow on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Putin that diplomatic talks with the West were “far from exhausted” and urged that they be continued.
“We have already warned more than once that we will not allow endless negotiations on questions that demand a solution today,” Lavrov said, adding, “I must say there are always chances.”
Russia has denied it plans to invade Ukraine.
The Pentagon said Monday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and NATO’s Stoltenberg discussed by phone “the importance of maintaining strong deterrence and defense and emphasized that Russia’s actions will ultimately achieve the opposite of their intended effect — a stronger and more unified NATO alliance, postured to deter and defend against aggression along NATO’s eastern flank.”
Austin is set to attend a meeting of NATO defense ministers this week in Brussels, and to visit Ukrainian neighbors Poland and Lithuania.