By Ken Bredemeier
Russia is boosting its military buildup and encircling much of Ukraine despite Moscow’s claims that it is withdrawing some troops, the United States and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday.
“More Russian forces, not fewer, are on the (Ukrainian) border and they’re moving concerningly into fighting positions,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
In Brussels, at a meeting of defense ministers from the alliance’s 30 member states, Stoltenberg said, “We have heard the signs from Moscow about readiness to continue diplomatic efforts. But so far, we have not seen any de-escalation on the ground. On the contrary, it appears that Russia continues its military buildup.”
Estonia’s intelligence chief Mikk Marran claimed that Russia would launch a “limited” attack on Ukraine, including a missile bombardment, and occupy “key terrain.”
“Right now, our assessment is that they would avoid cities with large populations, as it takes a lot of troops to control those areas,” he told reporters. “But there is no clear understanding of what avenue the Russian troops might exploit.”
U.S. and Ukrainian officials said they had not seen any evidence of a Russian pullback of some of the 150,000 troops deployed on the northern, eastern and southern borders of the onetime Soviet republic.
Rochan Consulting, an independent Poland-based defense consulting firm that tracks military movements via satellite images, said in a report that more Russian military trains had arrived near Ukraine since Moscow’s announcement that it was sending some troops back to their home bases.
“There is no indication that troops are being withdrawn. In fact, it is the opposite,” the report said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC’s “Good Morning America” show, “Unfortunately there’s a difference between what Russia says and does, and what we’re seeing is no meaningful pullback.”
“On the contrary, we continue to see forces, especially forces in the vanguard of any renewed aggression against Ukraine, continuing to be at the border, to mass at the border,” he added.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, “We’re in the window where we believe an attack could come at any time and that would be preceded by a fabricated pretext that the Russians use as an excuse to launch an invasion.”
In a short White House speech Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden warned that “an invasion remains distinctly possible,” adding that a Moscow invasion would lead to “incredible human suffering.”
NATO on Wednesday ordered its commanders to draft plans for new battlegroups in the alliance’s southeastern flank.
“Our military commanders will now work on the details and report back within weeks,” Stoltenberg said. “We do not know what will happen in Ukraine, but the situation has already demonstrated we face a crisis in European security.
He said the consideration of new NATO combat units stationed in central and southeastern Europe is in response to Russia’s attempts to intimidate other nations.
“I regret to say that this is the new normal in Europe,” he added.
U.S. officials last weekend had signaled they thought Russia might invade Wednesday. But it did not occur, and Ukrainians marked the moment as a day of unity, waving the country’s blue-and-yellow flag.
Asked by the German daily Welt if Russia was going to attack Wednesday, Russian ambassador to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, quipped, “Wars in Europe rarely start on a Wednesday.”
“There won’t be an escalation next week either, (or) in the week after, or in the coming month,” he said.
Peskov said that Putin is in favor of negotiations and viewed Biden’s willingness to continue diplomatic talks as a positive sign.
Biden said the U.S. has made several proposals to address Russian and NATO security concerns, including “new arms control measures, new transparency measures, new strategic stability measures.”
On Tuesday, Putin said he was ready for negotiations with the U.S. and its NATO allies over missile deployments and military exercises in Europe. NATO and the U.S. have rejected Putin’s key demand to rule out NATO membership for Ukraine and other former Soviet states.
Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.