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U.S. and NATO officials say they've seen no evidence that Russia has withdrawn troops

A Russian military vehicle drives off a railway platform after arriving in Belarus on Jan. 29. President Biden says 150,000 Russian troops ring Ukraine's borders.
Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP
A Russian military vehicle drives off a railway platform after arriving in Belarus on Jan. 29. President Biden says 150,000 Russian troops ring Ukraine's borders.

Officials from the U.S. and NATO say they have not seen a major withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine's borders, despite the announcement this week by President Vladimir Putin that Russian military officials had ordered some troops to return to their home bases.

"Unfortunately there's a difference between what Russia says and what it does, and what we're seeing is no meaningful pullback," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday in an interview with ABC's Good Morning America.

A senior administration official told reporters in a background briefing Wednesday that Russia's claims that it's pulling troops away from the border are "false."

"In fact, we have now confirmed that in the last several days, Russia has increased its troop presence along the Ukrainian border by as many as 7,000 troops, with some arriving as recently as today," the official said.

The number of Russian troops ringing Ukraine's borders on three sides has grown to 150,000, President Biden said Tuesday.

Commercial satellite imagery has shown their numbers swelling in recent weeks, including large deployments of attack aircraft to locations near Ukraine's borders. In Belarus, to Ukraine's north, some 30,000 of Russia's troops are participating in joint military exercises.

Late last week, U.S. officials sharply escalated warnings about the situation in Ukraine, urging Americans to leave the country as soon as possible ahead of an invasion that White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said "may well happen soon."

Speaking on condition of anonymity, officials said that Russia's military preparations for a full-scale invasion were complete and that an invasion was possible at any point this week.

That assessment has not changed, Blinken said Wednesday.

"President Putin's put in place the capacity to act on very short notice. He can pull the trigger. He could pull it today, he could pull it tomorrow, he could pull it next week," Blinken said.

Putin has consistently said that Russia does not intend to attack Ukraine. At a news conference Tuesday with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin said that it is Russia's intention to reach an agreement "by diplomatic means."

Putin added that Russian military leaders had decided "to pull out part of the troops."

But outside of Russia, officials said they would reserve judgment until seeing evidence of such a drawdown. "We've had other instances where they've made similar claims, and, in fact, the facts on the ground have proven otherwise," Julie Smith, the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, said Wednesday.

NATO sees no signs of Russian withdrawal

NATO, the defense alliance that has long drawn ire from Russia, has come to similar conclusions as U.S. officials.

"So far, we do not see any sign of de-escalation on the ground. No withdrawals of troops or equipment," said Secretary-General Jens Stoltenbergat a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Wednesday. "What we see today is that Russia maintains a massive invasion force ready to attack."

NATO is considering establishing new battlegroups in central and Eastern Europe, Stoltenberg said. The alliance has had a greater presence in Eastern Europe since Russia's invasion of Crimea — including battlegroups stationed in each of the three Baltic states and Poland. The U.S. oversees the group based in Poland.

Stoltenberg did not say exactly where new battlegroups would be based, but one likely setting is Romania, which borders western Ukraine. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is participating in the meetings this week.

The window for diplomacy may still be open

With Russia indicating it remains open to a diplomatic way out of the crisis, the frenzied pace of efforts by the West have not slowed. Scholz's visits to Moscow and Kyiv this week follow a similar tour by French President Emmanuel Macron last week. In recent days, Biden has spoken by phone with Putin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Macron and Scholz.

Although the Kremlin has cast Western warnings of an invasion as "hysteria,"Putin also says that his most important demands — which include barring Ukraine from joining NATO and the withdrawal of NATO troops from Eastern Europe — have been ignored.

On Tuesday, Biden repeated that the U.S. will not "sacrifice basic principles" of Ukraine's right to territorial integrity and freedom to "choose with whom they will associate" — namely, NATO.

But Biden added that the U.S. had proposed a set of measures covering arms control, transparency and strategic stability. "As long as there is hope of a diplomatic resolution that prevents the use of force and avoids the incredible human suffering that would follow, we will pursue it," he said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.