Russia held the door open on Monday to further talks on resolving its standoff with the West and said some of its military drills were ending, signalling a possible easing of the crisis over Ukraine.
While the comments from President Vladimir Putin and his foreign and defence ministers seemed to offer hope of a de-escalation, the Pentagon said Russia had strengthened its forces amassed on the border with Ukraine over the weekend.
Putin “continues to add forces along that border with Ukraine and in Belarus, even just over the course of the weekend, he’s well north of 100,000,” spokesman John Kirby told CNN.
During a carefully choreographed meeting with Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “there is always a chance” to reach an agreement with the West over Ukraine.
He told Putin that exchanges with leaders in European capitals and Washington showed enough of an opening for progress on Russia’s goals to be worth pursuing.
“I would suggest continuing,” Lavrov said in televised remarks. “Fine,” Putin replied.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Kiev, vowing that Berlin and its Western allies would maintain support for Ukraine’s security and independence, urging Russia to take up “offers of dialogue”.
During a news conference in Kiev with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Scholz said there was “no reasonable justification” for Russia’s build-up of troops around Ukraine’s borders. Scholz will visit Moscow on Tuesday.
Ukraine has demanded an urgent meeting with Russia and other members of the pan-European security body, the OSCE, to explain Moscow’s troop movements.
European leaders have warned that the build-up is the worst threat to the continent’s security since the Cold War, with Putin demanding a rollback of Western influence in eastern Europe and a ban on Ukraine joining Nato.
‘Nobody wants civil war’
Western allies have prepared what they warn would be a crippling package of economic sanctions in response to any attack. Moscow has repeatedly said it has no plans to attack Ukraine.
Alarm has been fuelled by recent Russian military exercises, including with Belarus, where the US said Moscow had dispatched 30,000 troops for more than a week of drills.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin that some of the drills were “ending” and more would end “in the near future”.
In Kiev, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov hailed “positive” talks with his Belarusian counterpart. He said he had been assured “there are no threats to Ukraine from Belarus”.
US intelligence officials worry that weeks of crisis talks have given Russia the time to prepare a major offensive should Putin decide to attack Ukraine.
On Sunday, Washington warned that Russia was ready to strike at “any moment”.
But on Monday, Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defence Council, said Kiev authorities did not believe Russia would attack on Wednesday or Thursday.
Near the frontline separating Kiev-held territory from areas under the control of Moscow-backed insurgents in the east, underprivileged children in the care of church groups were helping with war preparations.
“We are digging trenches that Ukrainian soldiers could quickly jump into and defend in case the Russians attack,” 15-year-old Mykhailo Anopa said. In Moscow, Russians said they did not want war.
“People in the West do not understand that we are one people,” Pavel Kuleshov, a 65-year-old pensioner, said, referring to Russians and Ukrainians. “Nobody wants a civil war.” Fellow pensioner Nina Tarasova said she did fear war could break out. “Of course I am scared. There is so much tension,” said the 63-year-old.
“The (coronavirus) infection has killed so many people. And now fighting? Why?”
Scholz to Moscow
Germany plays a central role in efforts to mediate in eastern Ukraine, where a gruelling conflict with Russian-backed separatists has claimed more than 14,000 lives.
But Berlin’s close business relations with Moscow and heavy reliance on Russian natural gas imports have been a source of lingering concern for Kiev’s pro-Western leaders and US President Joe Biden’s team.