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Ukraine tensions spike as West accuses Russia of lying about troop withdrawal

Ukrainian soldiers sang the national anthem in Kherson, Ukraine, on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022.Brendan Hoffman/NYT

KYIV, Ukraine — Tensions over Ukraine abruptly ratcheted up Wednesday as Western officials accused Russia of lying about whether it has really begun pulling back troops from the Ukrainian border.

After a day marked by flickers of hope that the conflict might be resolved peacefully, a senior U.S. official, who refused to be quoted by name, told reporters that far from winding down its deployment, Moscow had added more than 7,000 combatants. Western allies expressed similar doubts about the Russian claims.

The U.S. official directly accused Russia of lying, saying there was fresh evidence it was mobilizing for war.

British military officials said Wednesday they had spotted Russian armored vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital moving toward Ukraine’s border.

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“Contrary to their claims, Russia continues to build up military capabilities near Ukraine,” Lt. Gen. Jim Hockenhull, the British chief of defense intelligence, said in a statement. “Russia has the military mass in place to conduct an invasion of Ukraine.

The Western warnings contrasted sharply with Russia’s attempts to show that it was de-escalating.

Only hours earlier, the Russian Defense Ministry had released a video of a military convoy departing Crimea over the 12-mile bridge to Russia that President Vladimir Putin ordered built after the peninsula’s 2014 annexation. And the Kremlin’s spokesperson praised the United States for being willing to negotiate and for offering constructive ideas.

With the sudden turn of events Wednesday night, the outlines of any diplomatic solution to the crisis once again looked very hard to discern.

In recent days, U.S. officials pointedly declined to accept Russian claims of a pullback.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in an interview on MSNBC, said that the military units critical for an invasion force were continuing to move “toward the border, not away from the border.”

In Brussels, defense ministers from the NATO countries discussed ways to reinforce military positions on their eastern perimeter, while the group’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, said he also saw nothing to support Russia’s claim of a drawdown. “What we see is that Russian troops are moving into position,” Stoltenberg said.

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Mixed signals have been emanating virtually daily from Kyiv and Moscow, posing a challenge for diplomats, analysts and military planners. All sides are following delicate strategies, trying to appear resolute but not inflexible, so as to avoid blame in the event of war.

“There’s a lot of bluffing,” said Igor Novikov, a former foreign policy adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine. “It’s a poker game at the moment. But a very dangerous poker game.”

After talking up the prospects for diplomacy in recent days, Putin went silent on the crisis, taking no questions after meeting with President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, although his government continued to telegraph openness to diplomacy and dismissed the idea of an invasion.

For Putin, Russian analysts said, the plan remained to use the threat of war to achieve far-reaching objectives that he would prefer to attain peacefully: a rollback of NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe and the recognition of a Russian sphere of interest in the region, including Ukraine.

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said he expected many Russian troops to remain positioned near the border, in part to maintain that state of tension. “He will keep the pressure on until he gets a satisfactory answer to his main question,” he said.

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Putin appeared to dial down tensions this week in part because he had already made important early gains in a diplomatic effort that could still last for months. The United States, for instance, said it was prepared to revive talks on the placement of short and intermediate-range missiles in Europe. Some dialogue had already begun last year.

Putin has multiple ways to keep the pressure on, among them ominous new military moves, disinformation and cyberattacks. He can also wield political tactics like Tuesday’s vote in Russia’s Kremlin-controlled parliament that called on Putin to recognize the independence of Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, a move that he said he was not yet prepared to make.

“We are at the end of the beginning,” Trenin said, suggesting negotiations could continue for some time. “The game itself is still to come.”

One aspect has already emerged into public view: a discussion underway by European, Russian and Ukrainian leaders and officials over whether Ukraine might resolve the threat by abandoning its ambitions to join NATO. Analysts say the trick will be to devise a plan that will be acceptable to the Kremlin without provoking a backlash in Ukraine that could destabilize the government.

“Everyone must step back a bit here and make it clear to themselves that we just can’t have a possible military conflict over a question that is not on the agenda,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said after meeting with Putin on Tuesday, speaking of Ukrainian NATO membership.

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A Ukrainian deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, suggested a referendum as a way to sell what would surely appear to be a concession to the Ukrainian public.

“The president assumes there is such a possibility, if there are no other options or tools,” Vereshchuk said in an interview on Ukrainian television. The prospects of Russia agreeing to a referendum are uncertain, as preparations could take months, during which it would be costly for Moscow to continue to maintain the threat of an imminent invasion.

But in a signal of possible U.S. support, Wendy R. Sherman, a deputy secretary of state who in earlier rounds of talks had refused to accede to Russian demands that the United States rule out NATO membership for Ukraine, said in an interview published Wednesday that the United States would support any decision made by the Ukrainians.

“This decision remains with the Ukrainian people, what they want, where they see their future,” Sherman told Yevropaiska Pravda, a Ukrainian news outlet. “This is your choice.”

It seems certain that Putin will not be satisfied with simple assurances that Ukraine has no intention of joining NATO currently or a vague moratorium. “They are telling us it won’t happen tomorrow,” he said Tuesday. “Well, when will it happen? The day after tomorrow?”

Analysts have suggested setting a length for a moratorium, say 20-25 years, to assuage Putin’s misgivings.

Scholz pressed the idea of a lengthy delay, saying any Ukrainian entry into NATO was not likely during either of their terms in office. “I don’t know how long the president intends to stay in office,” he said, in a rare barb by a German leader directed at Putin. “I have a feeling for a little while yet, but certainly not forever.”

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Senior Russian officials had some fun of their own, needling Washington for its prediction that an invasion could start Wednesday — perhaps in the wee hours of the morning, according to some news reports. Maria Zakharova, the Foreign Ministry’s often caustic spokesperson, said she would appreciate U.S. and British news outlets publishing the schedules for Russia’s “invasions” in the coming year, because “I’d like to plan my vacation.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.