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After Russia’s gestures, the diplomatic offensive is strengthened to avoid a war in Ukraine

As the West eyed Russian troop movements near Ukraine warily, European leaders headed to the region Tuesday for last-minute diplomatic efforts, buoyed by signs from the Kremlin that there was still a way to avert a feared invasion and avert war. .

After weeks of rising tensions over Ukraine, the tone changed on Monday when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signaled that Russia was willing to continue talking about the security grievances that led to the crisis.

In what could be another sign that the Kremlin might want to tone it down, the Russian Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday that some units participating in military exercises would begin return to their bases.

At first it was unclear where those troops were deployed or how many would leave. And the operation was announced a day after Western officials said some Russian troops and military equipment were advancing towards the border, making it difficult to interpret the situation.

Russia has mobilized more than 130,000 troops near Ukraine, sparking fears of an invasion. And while the United States agreed that there was still a chance of a diplomatic way out, both Washington and London and other allies have increased their warnings that Russian forces could enter Ukraine at any time.

Russia denies having plans to invade Ukraine despite having deployed troops on Ukraine’s northern, southern and eastern borders and major military exercises launched nearby.

Russian President Vladimir Putin received the head of the German government, Olaf Scholz, in the Kremlin on Tuesday. Photo: AFP

diplomatic marathon

The new glimmers of hope were accompanied by a diplomatic frenzy. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday, the day after sitting down with the Ukrainian leader in Kiev.

Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, one of the main critics of Russia in Europe, also traveled to Moscow on Tuesday to meet with Lavrov, while the Ukrainian foreign minister received his Italian counterpart.

Lavrov’s comments were made in a meeting with Putin designed for television, which seemed designed to send a message about the Russian president’s position. The foreign minister argued that Moscow should hold more meetings, despite the West’s refusal to consider Russia’s main demands.

The talks “cannot continue indefinitely, but I would suggest that they continue and expand at this time,” Lavrov said, noting that Washington has offered to talk about limits on missile deployments in Europerestrictions on military maneuvers and other confidence-building measures.

What Moscow demands

Moscow wants assurances that NATO will not allow Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries to join the alliance. He also wants the alliance to stop deploying weapons to Ukraine and withdraw its forces from Eastern Europe.

Lavrov said the chances of talks “are far from being exhausted.”

Russian tanks return to their bases, in a gesture of relaxation.  Photo: AP

Russian tanks return to their bases, in a gesture of relaxation. Photo: AP

Putin said the West might try to draw Russia into “endless talks” and questioned whether there was still a chance of reaching an agreement. Lavrov responded that his ministry would not allow the United States and its allies to veto Russia’s main demands.

US skepticism

The United States reacted with coldness.

“The path of diplomacy remains open if Russia decides to engage constructively,” said White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

“However, we are not delusional about the chances of that, given the steps on the ground that Russia is taking on the surface,” he added.

This week appeared a possible way out. The Ukrainian ambassador to Great Britain, Vadym Prystaiko, pointed to the possibility of Kiev refusing to enter NATOa goal written into its Constitution, if that prevented war with Russia.

Prystaiko later seemed to back down, but the fact that the idea was mentioned at all suggested that it was being considered behind closed doors.

russian-forces-in-ukraine

Distrust

Despite encouraging signs, several European countries and the United States maintained their warnings.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss reiterated to Sky News on Tuesday that the risk of invasion remains and “could be imminent”. But she added that “there is still time for Vladimir Putin to step back from the edge of the abyss.”

Norwegian Foreign Minister Annien Huitfeldt issued a similar warning.

US authorities said the Russian military was continuing apparent attack preparations along the Ukrainian border. A US defense official said small groups of ground units had been moving away from troop concentrations for several days and taking up positions closer to the Ukrainian border, at what would be staging points if Putin launched an invasion.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to comment on unpublished information. The CBS News network was the first to report on the movement of the units.

Ukrainian soldiers train in the Donetsk region, where they are fighting pro-Russian separatists.  Photo: AP

Ukrainian soldiers train in the Donetsk region, where they are fighting pro-Russian separatists. Photo: AP

The satellite imaging company Maxar Technologies, which has monitored Russian troop movements, reported a increased Russian military activity in Belarus, Crimea, and western Russiawith the arrival of helicopters, ground-attack aircraft and fighter-bomber aircraft in forward positions.

The photographs cover a 48-hour period and also show ground forces leaving their barracks and combat units forming caravans.

Ukraine Challenge

Still, Ukraine’s defense and security chief Oleksiy Danilov downplayed the invasion threat, though he warned of the risk of “internal destabilization” by unspecified forces.

“Today we do not see that a large-scale offensive by the Russian Federation could take place on February 16 or 17,” he told reporters. “We are aware of the risks that exist on the territory of our country. But the situation is absolutely under control.”

As if in a gesture of defiance, Ukrainian President Volodimyr Zelensky said that Wednesday would be a “day of national unity” and asked the population to show the country’s yellow and blue flag and sing the national anthem in the face of “hybrid threats.”

“This is not the first threat facing the strong Ukrainian people,” Zelensky said Monday in a video message to the nation. “We are calm. We are strong. We are together,” he emphasized.

In any case, the country is preparing. Kiev residents received letters from the mayor urging them to “defend their city” and banners appeared on apartment buildings identifying the bomb shelter closest.

The capital has some 4,500 sheltersincluding underground parking lots, subway stations and basements, the mayor noted.

Source: AP

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