Russian president Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin.
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Signs indicate Russia could be seeking to dial back tensions in Ukraine crisis

Russia says it will move some troops back from the Ukraine border to their garrisons, apparently telegraphing a lowering of tensions with the U.S. and NATO.

Russia’s defense ministry announced on Tuesday it would begin pulling back some troops from areas near the border of Ukraine, a move that suggested Moscow may be seeking to dial back tensions over the crisis in Ukraine.

A spokesman for the ministry said in a statement that large-scale exercises involving land, sea and air units were ongoing, but that troops who had completed such training “will make marches in a combined way to” their garrisons.

The statement offered a small measure of hope that Moscow was pulling back from a full-scale invasion of its neighbor, a former Soviet republic. In recent weeks, Russia has massed a formidable force that has nearly encircled Ukraine. The troop deployments have raised alarms in Western governments, with U.S. and NATO officials issuing dire warnings that an attack is imminent.

The defense ministry announcement follows other encouraging signs from the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin met Monday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and in a highly choreographed scene tasked his top diplomat with continuing to negotiate with the West.

The Putin-Lavrov meeting and the military spokesman’s statements did not diminish fears in Kyiv or among NATO leaders that war is no longer on the table. The military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said in the same statement that large-scale naval and other military drills were still being conducted. Konashenkov also did not provide many details about the number of troops being withdrawn to their garrisons.

Kyiv, Ukraine.
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Even so, Western officials and those in Ukraine approached such developments with caution. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the announcement gave “ground for cautious optimism,” but added “we have not seen any sign of de-escalation on ground.”

“What we have seen on the ground, since last spring, is that they are moving forces around,” Stoltenberg told reporters, noting that such movements had not been accompanied by the withdrawal of equipment. “The movement of forces does not represent real de-escalation.”

Ukrainian officials also expressed skepticism about Russia’s intentions.

“When we see the withdrawal, we will believe in deescalation,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba during a video briefing from Kyiv on Tuesday.

Such apprehension could be justified. Konrad Muzak, director of the Poland-based Rochan consultancy, which analyzes open-source materials, said that reports on social media indicated Russia was moving additional equipment to staging areas in Crimea and Belarus.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.