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Video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry showed army tanks standing ready to move back to permanent bases. Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP
military manoeuvres

US and Germany demand 'real steps towards de-escalation' from Russia

Russia announced the end of military drills in Crimea while Belarus said all Russian troops will leave when joint manoeuvres end.

LAST UPDATE | 16 Feb 2022

JOE BIDEN AND German Chancellor Olaf Scholz tonight urged Moscow to take real steps to defuse tensions, as they warned that no significant withdrawal of Russian troops from the Ukraine border had been observed so far.

“The risk of a further military agggression by Russia against Ukraine remains high, utmost caution is required,” according to a statement issued by the German chancellery following a phone call between Scholz and Biden.

“Russia must take real steps toward de-escalation,” they added, renewing a warning that any further military aggression undertaken by Moscow against Ukraine would invite “extraordinarily serious consequences”.

Scholz had telephoned Biden to brief the US leader on his face-to-face talks on Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Both leaders welcomed Putin’s statements that diplomatic efforts should continue to resolve the Ukraine crisis, and affirmed that they must be “pursued at full speed”.

Earlier today, US Secretary of State State Antony Blinken said that the United States had seen no evidence of a significant Russian withdrawal of its military forces from Ukraine’s borders, despite Moscow’s claim.

Speaking on ABC News, Blinken said that a threat of an invasion remained “real” and reiterated calls for Russia to de-escalate the situation.

“Unfortunately there’s a difference between Russia says, and what it does and what we’re seeing is no meaningful pullback,” Blinken said.

“On the contrary, we continue to see forces, especially forces that would be in the vanguard of any renewed aggression against Ukraine, continuing to be at the border, to mass at the border.”

It comes as Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Coveney, says that two Irish diplomats will continue to stay in Ukraine to assist Irish nationals for as long as it is safe to do so.

Blinken urged diplomacy to resolve the situation, but added: “We’re prepared for diplomacy. We’re prepared for aggression. We’re prepared either way.”

Earlier this morning, Nato Chief Jens Stoltenberg said that there was no apparent withdrawal of Russian troops from the border.

“On the contrary, it appears that Russia continues their military build-up,” he said.

Stoltenberg said “it remains to be seen whether there is a Russian withdrawal.

“We are of course monitoring very closely what Russia does in and around Ukraine. What we see is that they have increased the number of troops and more troops are on their way.”

It comes after Russia announced the end of military drills in Moscow-annexed Crimea and that soldiers were returning to their garrisons, a day after it announced a first troop pullback from Ukraine’s borders.

“Units of the Southern Military District, having completed their participation in tactical exercises, are moving to their permanent deployment points,” Moscow’s defence ministry said in a statement.

Russian state television showed images of military units crossing a bridge linking the Russian-controlled peninsula to the mainland.

The statement said tanks, infantry vehicles and artillery were leaving Crimea by rail.

politics-ukraine Press Association Images Press Association Images

Belarus’s foreign minister Vladimir Makei said today that “not a single” Russian soldier will remain in the country after the massive joint manoeuvres by Minsk and Moscow near Ukraine’s border end.

“Not a single (Russian) soldier or a single unit of military equipment will stay on the territory of Belarus after the drills with Russia,” Makei told a press conference in the capital Minsk.

He said the defence ministry and long-time President Alexander Lukashenko had made this clear.

Irish diplomats

Speaking at tonight’s Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said that two Irish diplomats would be remaining in Ukraine to assist Irish nationals as long as it is safe to do so.

He said there were significant consular challenges being worked on including surrogacy cases.

There are 98 Irish citizens registered in our embassy in Ukraine and 33 have departed.

Ahead of a UN security council meeting tomorrow, he said the focus on diplomacy and deterring an invasion of Ukraine would continue and he did not expect the story to abate.

It comes as Western leaders remain concerned that Russia could still launch an attack on Ukraine.

UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson echoed comments made by Blinken earlier today that there was “very little evidence of Russia disengaging” the military buildup on the Ukrainian border in a phone call with the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

“The leaders reiterated states’ responsibility to abide by their obligations under the United Nations Charter and to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of UN members,” Johnson’s office said in a readout of the call.

The pair also agreed that any Russian invasion of Ukraine would have “catastrophic and far-reaching consequences”, a Downing Street spokeswoman added.

Johnson and Guterres “reaffirmed the importance of all parties working in good faith” to implement existing agreements struck by Ukraine, Russia and mediating countries concerning the region’s security, it added.

“They agreed to continue working closely together to pursue an urgent diplomatic resolution and avert a disastrous military escalation and humanitarian crisis,” the Downing Street spokeswoman said.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock will host the talks on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, said a spokesman, adding they will “focus on the crisis that has arisen due to the Russian troop deployment near Ukraine”.

Smaller huddles on the issue are also expected between France, Germany and Ukraine, as well as France, Germany, Britain and the United States.

Stoltenberg urged Moscow to carry out a sustained withdrawal of its forces from the border and cautioned that Moscow “always moves forces back and forth”.

“If they really start to withdraw forces, that’s something we will welcome. But that remains to be seen,” he said.

“Just that we see movement of forces, of battle tanks doesn’t confirm a real withdrawal.”

Biden warned yesterday that an attack by Moscow remained “very much a possibility”.

Biden said that despite Russian claims earlier in the day, Washington and its allies had yet to verify the withdrawal of any of the tens of thousands of troops he says Moscow has now mustered along Ukraine’s border.

There had been reports that any attack on Ukraine by Russia would be launched today.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who spoke with his US counterpart Secretary of State Antony Blinken yesterday, said reports of attack timing had spurred confusion among officials.

“I wouldn’t say it amuses us, but of course it leaves us deeply perplexed,” Lavrov said.

© – AFP, 2022, with additional reporting by Christina Finn.

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