US says Russia's claim of withdrawing troops from border with Ukraine is false

Russian army service members take part in drills at southern Rostov region in Russia, on Jan 26, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES/REUTERS) - The United States does not believe Russia's claim to be withdrawing troops from the Ukraine border and suspects Moscow has increased its presence by as many as 7,000 troops, a senior Biden administration official said on Wednesday (Feb 16).

"So yesterday, the Russian government said it was withdrawing troops from the border with Ukraine...But we now know it was false," the official told reporters without offering details or providing evidence.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Biden administration confirmed that "Russia has increased its troop presence along the Ukrainian border by as many as 7,000 troops" with many of them arriving as recently as Wednesday.

The senior administration official also said Russia has publicly claimed to engage in diplomacy and made claims of "de-escalation" while "privately mobilising for war".

The Kremlin said on Thursday that Russia’s withdrawal of forces from around Ukraine’s borders would take place over an extended period.

"This is a process that will take some time," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, after Moscow had announced two separate pullbacks following drills that raised fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

"The defence ministry has reported that certain phases of the exercises are coming to an end, and as they do, military units are returning to permanent bases," Mr Peskov said.

He added however that forces "can’t just take to the air and all fly away", adding that on the drawdown the defence ministry "has a schedule".

Moscow made two separate announcements on Thursday it was returning military forces to bases after completing war games that had spurred Western fears of an attack.

Russia's defence ministry said on Wednesday its forces were pulling back after exercises near Ukraine and published video that it said showed forces leaving the Crimean peninsula.

On the same day, British military officials said they had spotted Russian armoured vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital moving toward Ukraine’s border.

“Contrary to their claims, Russia continues to build up military capabilities near Ukraine,” Lt. Gen. Jim Hockenhull, the British chief of defence intelligence, said in a statement. “Russia has the military mass in place to conduct an invasion of Ukraine."

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview on MSNBC on Wednesday that "critical units" were moving towards the border.

On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden said the United States estimated that 150,000 Russian troops had encircled Ukraine, an increase from previous estimates of about 100,000.

The senior administration official said the United States continued to receive information that suggests Russia can "launch a false pretext at any moment" to justify an invasion of Ukraine. The official pointed to an increase in false claims and disinformation online by Russia in recent days.

On Thursday, Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine accused Kyiv government forces of shelling their territory with mortars, in violation of agreements aimed at ending the conflict, the RIA news agency said.

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