Russia says it's begun partial troop pullback from Ukraine border; NATO urges caution

Key Points
  • Moscow is beginning to return troops at the Ukrainian border to their bases, the Russian government has announced.
  • Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense, said troops who had recently been posted along the border with Ukraine had begun their move back to their military garrisons.
  • Ukraine's president and Western officials have urged caution over taking Russia's claims at face value.
  • Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, said the move could signal a big defeat for Putin.
In this photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, Russian army tanks move back to their permanent base after drills in Russia.
Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

LONDON — Moscow is starting to return some troops at the Ukrainian border to their bases, the Russian government announced Tuesday — but Ukraine's president and Western officials have urged caution over taking Russia's claims at face value.

In a statement early Tuesday, Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense, said troops that had recently been posted to Russia's southern and western military districts — which share a border with Ukraine — had completed their military drills and "have already begun loading onto rail and road transport and will begin moving to their military garrisons today."

Konashenkov also announced that Russian troops currently engaged in military drills in neighboring Belarus, which shares a border with Ukraine to the latter's north, would return to their permanent bases when the exercises ended on Feb. 20.

However, in a response to Russia later Tuesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said: "We in Ukraine have a rule: we don't believe what we hear, we believe what we see. If a real withdrawal follows these statements, we will believe in the beginning of a real de-escalation."

On a call with reporters Tuesday, Julianne Smith, President Joe Biden's Ambassador to NATO downplayed the Kremlin's claim.

"We'll have to verify that and take a look. You may remember, in late December, there were some similar claims that came out of Moscow that they were de-escalating and in fact, facts on the ground did not support that claim," Smith said. "This is something that we'll have to look at closely and verify and in the days ahead," she added.

Thousands of Russian troops began engaging in military drills last week in a move that was widely seen as a display of strength by Moscow. The drills came as more than 100,000 soldiers, tanks, missiles and even fresh blood supplies had been moved to Russia's border with Ukraine.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the U.S. and its allies are closely watching the drills.

"Over the course of the weekend, Mr. Putin has added military capability along that border with Ukraine and in Belarus," Kirby said. "He is exercising some of his units on the ground there in the south, as well as naval units in the Black Sea."

"He continues to give himself more options, should he pursue a military path here," Kirby said. "He continues to advance his readiness, should he choose to go down a military path here and should he choose to invade again, he is doing all the things you would expect him to do to make sure he's ready for that option."

Uncertainty unlike anything I've seen in my lifetime, says Atlantic Council's Kempe of Russia-Ukraine
Uncertainty unlike anything I've seen in my lifetime, says Atlantic Council's Kempe of Russia-Ukraine

Moscow has repeatedly insisted it has no plans to invade Ukraine, despite warnings from Western countries in recent days that an invasion is likely to be imminent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told a press conference on Tuesday that he saw some leeway for further discussions with the West over the situation in Ukraine, Reuters reported, reiterating that Russia had decided upon a partial withdrawal of its troops from the border.

His comments came several hours after the Kremlin dubbed U.S. warnings that Moscow would launch an attack on Wednesday "baseless hysteria." A Kremlin spokesperson had also said tensions had been exacerbated by a huge buildup of Ukrainian forces and Western claims that war was imminent, according to Reuters.

The situation at Ukraine's border is part of a broader, long-term issue.

Russian lawmakers voted on Tuesday to ask Putin to recognize two Russian-supported breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent. Around 13,000 people in east Ukraine have died in an ongoing conflict between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region, which Putin referred to as "genocide" at the news conference on Tuesday.

Russian envoy to the EU Vladimir Chizhov said on Tuesday that Russia will not invade Ukraine "unless we are provoked."

"If the Ukrainians launch an attack against Russia, you shouldn't be surprised if we counterattack," he said, according to the state news agency TASS. "Or, if they start blatantly killing Russian citizens anywhere — Donbas or wherever."

'No sign of de-escalation'

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a news conference at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium January 7, 2022.
Johanna Geron | Reuters

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference Tuesday that while there was reason for "cautious optimism" over the situation in Ukraine, the military alliance so far had "not seen any sign of de-escalation on the ground from the Russian side."

"Russia has amassed a fighting force in and around Ukraine unprecedented since the Cold War," he said. "Everything is in place for a new attack. But Russia still has time to step back from the brink, stop preparing for war and start working for a peaceful solution."

NATO has not received any response from Russia regarding its request for a meeting to discuss the current situation, Stoltenberg told reporters, adding that any move from Russia into Ukraine would violate international law.

He added that Russia's continued efforts to destabilize Ukraine, through its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support of Russian separatists in the country, as well as the current buildup of troops along the Ukrainian border and near NATO territory, meant the organization may need to consider making long-term security adjustments.

Stoltenberg's comments come as Biden's Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin travels to the NATO alliance headquarters in Brussels. Austin will meet with defense ministers for two days before traveling to NATO's eastern flank.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the U.K.'s Foreign Office told CNBC in an email that Britain will "judge the Russians by their actions not their words."

Win for the West?

Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, said in a note Tuesday that "if Putin has really blinked, this would be huge win for Biden, [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy] and the West," adding that it would be difficult to see the entire situation as anything but a big defeat for Putin.

"What did he achieve?" he said. "He managed to rally the West back around NATO, which again has common purpose. Ukrainian sovereignty [has been] affirmed, even strengthened."

As a result of Russia's aggressive activity, Ukraine's military was now better armed and better able to defend itself, Ash added.

"Russia has been called out as an unreliable energy supplier — the West will accelerate diversification away from Russian energy sources," he said. "Some will say [Putin] was the Russian leader who actually lost Ukraine. That will be his mark in history — he accelerated Ukraine's Western orientation."

Diplomacy 'far from exhausted'

In a televised exchange on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Putin that the avenues the Kremlin could use to secure the security guarantees it has demanded — including diplomacy — "are far from exhausted."

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a joint news conference with OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Poland's Minister for Foreign Affairs Zbigniew Rau in Moscow, Russia February 15, 2022.
Shamil Zhumatov | Reuters

While Lavrov suggested continuing along the diplomatic route, he added, "We have already warned more than once that we will not allow endless negotiations on questions that demand a solution today."

Russia is demanding that Ukraine never be permitted to become a NATO member, and has said it wants the organization to roll back its presence in Eastern Europe. Since 2002, Ukraine has sought entry into NATO, the world's most powerful military alliance. The group's Article 5 clause states that an attack on one member country is considered an attack on all of them.

The U.S. and NATO have said that such a request from Russia cannot be accommodated.

Addressing the Ukrainian population on Monday, Zelenskyy said Ukraine "wants ... to resolve all issues exclusively through negotiations." But he added that Ukraine could respond to any aggression with its "great army" that has "unique combat experience and modern weapons."

The White House said Tuesday that Biden spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron. The call between the two leaders comes on the heels of Biden's call with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Biden and Johnson agreed that "a crucial window for diplomacy" still remained, reiterating that a significant package of sanctions — including reducing European countries' reliance on Russian gas — would be imposed if Russian aggression escalated.

In separate phone calls over the weekend, Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Putin.

The White House said during the call with Zelenskyy, Biden reaffirmed U.S. commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

And the president warned his Russian counterpart that if there is a further invasion of Ukraine, Washington and its allies will impose "swift and severe costs." Biden said that while the U.S. remains prepared to engage in diplomacy, "we are equally prepared for other scenarios."

Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau — the current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — is due to convene talks in Moscow on Tuesday between Lavrov and the OSCE's chairperson-in-office in Ukraine, Mikko Kinnunen.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is in Moscow on Tuesday to meet with Putin. Scholz met with Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Monday.

Despite the Kremlin doubling down on its claims that Russia doesn't have plans to invade Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies have been warning that an invasion could happen "any day now." Secretary of State Antony Blinken ordered the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv to close on Monday, relocating staff to the city of Lviv in western Ukraine.

CNBC's Amanda Macias contributed to this report from Washington.