Ukraine invasion 'distinctly possible', Biden warns as Russia says it withdrew some troops

US has not verified Russian claims that it has pulled some forces back from Ukrainian border

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President Joe Biden on Tuesday said that a Russian attack on Ukraine remains “distinctly possible” and that the US has yet to confirm Moscow's claims it has pulled some troops back from the border.

Speaking in a White House address, Mr Biden sought to strike a forceful tone against Russia while also backing diplomatic advances from earlier in the day that showed some signs of tension being dialled back.

“That would be good,” Mr Biden said about the Kremlin's claims to have withdrawn some troops.

But “we have not yet verified the Russian military units are returning to their home bases. Indeed, our analysts indicate that they're remain very much in a threatening position".

He said 150,000 Russian troops are now deployed along the Russian and Belarusian borders with Ukraine, a higher estimate than US officials have previously given.

“An invasion remains distinctly possible,” Mr Biden said.

Earlier, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow while western allies reacted cautiously to a Russian statement that it was beginning to pull back troops.

Russia and Germany signalled they would keep their diplomacy alive to seek common ground in the political tug-of-war over Ukraine.

Mr Putin said Russia would engage with talks on missile reduction despite its frustration that western powers will not consider Moscow’s main demand of restricting Nato expansion.

Mr Scholz said diplomatic options were far from exhausted as he took up the baton of leading western efforts to prevent war.

The talks came hours after Russia announced that some of its troops would return to their bases.

Russia’s announcement rallied markets but was met with scepticism by Nato and its senior members.

Mr Biden said the US will continue its own diplomatic efforts in close consultation with its allies and partners.

“As long as there is hope of diplomatic resolution that prevents the use of force and avoids the incredible human suffering that would follow, we will pursue it,” he vowed.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meanwhile held a phone call with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, their second conversation in three days.

In a readout of the call, the State Department said Mr Blinken reiterated the US commitment to pursuing a diplomatic solution but is waiting for a Russian written response within “the coming days".

“The United States looks forward to receiving Russia’s written response to the US and Nato papers shared with Moscow last month proposing concrete areas for discussion regarding European security in co-ordination with our allies and partners,” the State Department said.

In the deeply divided US Senate meanwhile, Democratic and Republican leaders vowed to work together to punish Russia if it invades.

"We are prepared to fully support the immediate imposition of strong, robust, and effective sanctions on Russia, as well as tough restrictions and controls on exports to Russia", a bipartisan group of senators including Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.

At the Kremlin, where Germany's Mr Scholz was kept at a distance around the same long table where France’s Emmanuel Macron sat last week, there was no sign of agreement on the fundamental issue of Ukraine’s future.

Mr Scholz said an eastward expansion of Nato was not currently on the agenda, but the Russian leader said vague assurances such as this would not satisfy Moscow’s demand for legally binding guarantees.

Russia is seeking a ban on further former Soviet countries joining Nato, as well as a return to 1990s levels in Nato’s military presence in Eastern Europe.

Despite the lack of agreement on these points, he said Russia would take up the western offer of discussions on other so-called confidence-building measures, including arms control and limits on military drills.

“We are ready to work further together. We are ready to go down the negotiations track,” Mr Putin said.

Mr Biden said Ukraine poses not threat to Russia.

“Neither the US nor Nato have missiles in Ukraine. We do not do not have plans to put them there,” he said.

Nato says it is still awaiting a formal response from Russia on confidence-building measures after the alliance exchanged written proposals with Moscow.

Mr Scholz said there were some points in Russia’s suggestions that were worth discussing despite the wide gaps on the question of Nato’s future.

“We are ready, together with all our partners in the EU and Nato, and with Russia, to talk about concrete steps to improve our collective security,” Mr Scholz said on his first trip to Russia since taking office.

“We cannot end up at a dead end. That would be a misfortune for us all.”

Western allies including the UK and US, as well as Nato itself, welcomed signals that Russia was open to diplomacy while remaining cautious about whether Moscow was lowering its posture.

Still, the Kremlin failed to send a representative to an Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) meeting about Russia's military build-up.

“Russia is patently failing to live up to the international commitments it has made around transparency,” Britain's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.

“If the Kremlin is serious about a diplomatic resolution, then it needs to show up to diplomatic meetings and commit to meaningful talks.

A Ukrainian serviceman fires an NLAW anti-tank weapon during an exercise in the Joint Forces Operation, in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb.  15, 2022.  While the U. S.  warns that Russia could invade Ukraine any day, the drumbeat of war is all but unheard in Moscow, where pundits and ordinary people alike don't expect President Vladimir Putin to launch an attack on its ex-Soviet neighbor.  (AP Photo / Vadim Ghirda)

The US and UK have said in recent days that Mr Putin could order an invasion of Ukraine at any moment, although Kiev played down suggestions that it could come as early as Wednesday.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said some intelligence suggested Russia could still be preparing for war despite hopes of a peaceful solution being raised.

He suggested Mr Putin could order a strike from allied Belarus, where Russia is said to be building field hospitals close to the border in preparation for a potential invasion.

But he said the UK’s embassy in Kiev would stay open despite moves made by allies to close their diplomatic missions in the capital.

Britain also kept up pressure on Russia on Tuesday by threatening that sanctions in the event of war would target Kremlin-linked companies and property owners in the UK.

Such measures would prevent Russian businesses from raising capital on London’s financial markets, the prime minister said.

Mr Biden spoke to Mr Macron on Tuesday morning, while Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who led negotiations with Russia in Geneva last month, spoke to her French, German, Italian and British counterparts.

They discussed continuing diplomatic efforts “to urge Russia to de-escalate and choose the path of diplomacy while reaffirming their readiness to impose swift, severe costs on the Russian Federation in response to any further military action against Ukraine”, the State Department said.

Updated: February 18, 2022, 8:45 AM
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