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Russia signals troop pullback from Ukraine border after exercises

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(KYIV, Ukraine) — Russia’s military has said some troops massed near Ukraine will begin returning to base on Tuesday following the completion of what it called “exercises,” in a potential sign of de-escalation amid fears of a possible Russian invasion.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense said units from its southern and western military districts, which have deployed thousands of troops close to Ukraine’s border, had begun returning to barracks. Video released by the military showed what it said was tanks pulling back.

A spokesman for Russia’s southern military district said its servicemen had also begun leaving Crimea, where Russia has built up a large force.

Ukrainian officials and independent experts cautioned that it was still to be seen whether the Russian forces really leave and how many of them do so. Major Russian exercises are still continuing in neighboring Belarus to the north of Ukraine and in the Black Sea.

Ukraine’s foreign minister said officials would believe the Russian withdrawal “when we see it.”

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“There are constantly various statements coming out of the Russian Federation, so we have a rule: We’ll believe it when we see it,” Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a daily briefing. “When we see the withdrawal, we will believe in the de-escalation.”

The pullback announcement came a day after Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu briefed President Vladimir Putin that Russia’s huge military drills would end in the “near future.”

Shoigu told Putin that “part of the drills are approaching their completion, and part would be completed in the near future.”

Russia has always denied it has any intention to attack Ukraine using the over 100,000 troops it has massed near its border. Russia has painted warnings from the U.S. and other Western countries that it may be preparing to launch an invasion as “hysteria.”

A spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday said that the day would prove the Western warnings had been unfounded.

Tuesday “will go down in history as the day the Western propaganda war failed. Disgraced and destroyed without a shot being fired,” the spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, wrote on her Facebook.

Military exercises on an unprecedented scale are continuing in Belarus and are due to end on Feb. 20.

Putin is hosting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for talks at the Kremlin on Tuesday, as Western countries continue intensive diplomacy to try to avert a war.

The U.S. has warned that Russia could launch an invasion of Ukraine this week, reportedly briefing NATO allies last week that it had intelligence the attack could come as early as Wednesday.

Ukraine’s government has expressed more skepticism that Russia is ready to attack this week, suggesting it believes the massive Russian build up is intended to pressure Ukraine with the threat of invasion. Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy, in a televised address Monday night, told Ukrainians he was declaring Wednesday, the alleged day of a possible Russian attack, a national holiday.

Zelenskyy’s national security advisor, Oleksiy Danilov, told Ukrainian television Monday night that Ukraine did not see signs Russia is preparing to attack on Feb. 16 or 17.

“We recognize all the risks that there are for our country. But the situation is absolutely under control,” he said. “More than that, we today do not see that a broad-scale invasion from Russia can happen on either 16th or 17th February. We do not see that.”

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