MOSCOW/KYIV: The United States and NATO said Russia was still building up troops around Ukraine on Wednesday despite Moscow’s insistence it was pulling back, questioning President Vladimir Putin’s stated desire to negotiate a solution to the crisis.
In Ukraine, where people raised flags and played the national anthem to show unity against fears of an invasion, the government said a cyber attack that hit the defence ministry was the worst of its kind that the country had seen. It pointed the finger towards Russia, which denied involvement.
The Russian defence ministry said its forces were pulling back after exercises in southern and western military districts near Ukraine – part of a huge build-up that was accompanied by demands for sweeping security guarantees from the West.
It published video that it said showed tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled artillery units leaving the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said key Russian units were moving towards the border, not away.
Ukraine intelligence shows no proof of Russian troop withdrawal: minister
“There’s what Russia says. And then there’s what Russia does. And we haven’t seen any pullback of its forces,” Blinken said in an interview on MSNBC. “We continue to see critical units moving toward the border, not away from the border.”
A senior Western intelligence official said the risk of Russian aggression against Ukraine would remain high for the rest of February and Russia could still attack Ukraine “with essentially no, or little-to-no, warning”.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said moving troops and tanks back and forth did not amount to proof of a pullout.
“We have not seen any withdrawal of Russian forces. And of course, that contradicts the message of diplomatic efforts,” Stoltenberg said before a meeting of the alliance in Brussels. “What we see is that they have increased the number of troops and more troops are on their way. So, so far, no de-escalation.”
Stoltenberg later said NATO could prove Russia’s failure to pull back its troops with satellite images.