NATO said on Thursday that it still sees no drawdown of Russian troops from near the Ukrainian border, two days after Moscow announced it would reduce its presence there, raising hopes of détente in a tense situation, news agency MIA reports.
“There are signs from Moscow that diplomacy could continue, but so far we have not seen any sign of withdrawal or de-escalation,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at defense ministers’ talks in Brussels.
British Defense Minister Ben Wallace said that nearly 60% of Russia’s land combat forces were now concentrated near the Ukrainian borders, 150,000 or more in real terms.
Russia has been amassing soldiers and equipment there for several months, prompting fears in Kyiv and other Western capitals that plans for an invasion could be afoot. Wallace’s comments came after a high-ranking White House official said that despite Moscow’s claims to the contrary, it was still sending troops to the border – perhaps as many as 7,000 troops in recent days. EU leaders are to discuss the crisis on the sidelines of a Brussels summit on Thursday. There have also been concerns about ongoing Russian military exercises in Belarus, but Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko rejected the idea of Russian military bases in his country.
According to the state agency Belta, Lukashenko said as much on Thursday during a visit to the joint military maneuvers with Russia that has been running for a week. There was no need for Russian military bases because in an emergency the Russian army would come to the neighboring country for support, Lukashenko said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to the Interfax agency, that there was “no question now” of a permanent military presence in Belarus. The exercise in southern Belarus on the border with Ukraine is scheduled to end on Sunday.
This Friday, Lukashenko plans to travel to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin has given assurances that its own soldiers involved in the exercise should return to their bases in Russia when it is over. On Wednesday, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey also said: “Not a single Russian soldier will stay in Belarus after these exercises.”
The neighboring country’s military equipment will also be withdrawn. Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, and has also been backing pro-Russian separatists in its neighbor’s eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions — collectively known as Donbas — who are battling Ukrainian government forces. The latter get backing from NATO countries. The separatists in eastern Ukraine have accused government troops of violating the ceasefire in force.
The army’s morning report on Thursday, on the other hand, only reported isolated violations by the other side. The Luhansk rebels said that dozens of mortar shells had been fired at several locations in the Luhansk region, especially in the morning hours. Rebel positions in the Donetsk region were also shelled.
The rebels returned fire. Neither side reported any casualties in their own ranks. Independent reports were not available at first. In recent days, ceasefire monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have recorded fewer violations on average than last year.
In contrast, the Kremlin’s Peskov said in Moscow that Kyiv had stepped up its “provocative actions” in recent days. “This is a very, very dangerous situation,” Peskov said.
In the West, he said, people only ever talk about Russia’s potential to attack, not Ukraine’s. Western-backed government forces have been fighting Russian-backed separatists in Donbas not far from the Russian border, since 2014. According to UN estimates, more than 14,000 people have already been killed, mostly in separatist territory. A peace plan from 2015 is not being implemented.
Peskov said separately Moscow would respond on Thursday to a letter sent by the United States on a set of Russian security demands made in the current crisis. These include that Ukraine never join NATO and that the alliance pull back troops stationed in Eastern Europe since 2014.