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A militant of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic walks at fighting positions on the line of separation from the Ukrainian armed forces near the rebel-controlled settlement of Staromykhailivka in Donetsk Region, Ukraine.ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/Reuters

Russia sent mixed messages Tuesday about its intentions toward Ukraine, announcing a withdrawal of some troops only to escalate the political tension a few hours later when lawmakers sent President Vladimir Putin a bill asking him to recognize the independence of two breakaway regions.

Mr. Putin himself added to the ambiguity by saying it was impossible – even for him – to say whether Russia’s troop withdrawal would continue. “Who will be able to answer how it will develop? At the moment, nobody. It does not depend just on us,” he said at a joint press conference in Moscow after meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Ukraine reported an apparent cyberattack Tuesday, with two of the country’s largest banks, PrivatBank and Oschadbank, and the Ministry of Defence website knocked offline by direct denial-of-service attacks. The White House, which said a full-scale Russian invasion could occur at any time, has warned cyberattacks could also be part of a Russian campaign to destabilize Ukraine.

What’s the latest in Russia and NATO’s standoff over Ukraine? The story so far

Mr. Putin said Russia did not want war, and was “ready to go down the negotiations track” regarding its main demand that Ukraine be barred from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance.

However, he also used the press conference with Mr. Scholz to accuse Ukraine of committing “genocide” in the southeastern Donbas region – which is under the control of a pro-Russian militia – raising it as a comparable situation to NATO’s 1999 military intervention to stop Serbian atrocities in Kosovo.

U.S. President Joe Biden said that the purported withdrawal of some Russian forces was not yet verified, and that there remain more than 150,000 troops encircling Ukraine. The Russian military is still “very much in a threatening position” and “an invasion remains distinctly possible,” he said.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said in a statement that Russia remains a “real and imminent” threat and the country needed to show proof of de-escalation. “Any further invasion of Ukraine will be met with swift, severe consequences, including co-ordinated economic sanctions.”

Mr. Biden reiterated his threat of severe sanctions, including the end of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, in the event of an invasion. Such an attack would prove “a self-inflicted wound” for Russia, he said.

“To the citizens of Russia: You are not our enemy, and I do not believe you want a bloody, destructive war against Ukraine, a country and a people with whom you share such deep ties of family history and culture,” the President told reporters in the East Room of the White House. “Seventy-seven years ago, our people fought and scarified side by side to end the worst war in history. World War II was a war of necessity, but if Russia attacks Ukraine, it would be a war of choice, a war without cause or reason.”

Mr. Biden again rejected Mr. Putin’s demand that NATO guarantee it would never allow Ukraine to join, saying that he would never agree to sacrifice principles, such as the right of countries to “choose with whom they associate,” but said he was willing to negotiate other measures.

Tatiana Stanovaya, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Mr. Putin appeared to be trying to separate Russia’s negotiations with the West – which have broadened to include discussions of new arms control agreements – from Russia’s antagonistic relationship with Ukraine. Mr. Putin, she said, was seeking to cast Kyiv as a bad actor that might derail international efforts to calm the crisis. Western officials have repeatedly warned of a possible false flag incident that could be used to justify a Russian assault on Ukraine.

“If tomorrow something happens in Donbas, an explosion or some attack, Russia can say ‘this is not because our talks with the West have failed, it’s because the situation in Ukraine has changed,’” Ms. Stanovaya said. “For me, it doesn’t mean the risk of a military campaign is decreasing.”

The announcement of the troop withdrawal – which was accompanied by Russian Defence Ministry videos that showed tanks and other equipment being moved away from the Ukrainian border – appeared to be the first significant sign in months that Moscow might be stepping back from the brink of war. However, military analysts cautioned that it would take several days to verify whether the units shown in the Russian Defence Ministry videos were actually being withdrawn, or just moved to other positions around Ukraine.

Hopes for a de-escalation were further watered down when Russia’s parliament, the Duma, passed a bill calling for Mr. Putin to recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic as independent states. The two self-declared republics in the southeastern Donbas region of Ukraine have been under the control of Moscow-backed rebels since 2014.

Recognizing the independence of the “people’s republics” could give Mr. Putin a pretext to order his troops to defend the Russian-speaking regions, which remain locked in a gruelling conflict with the Ukrainian army. The fighting in Donbas has killed about 14,000 people over the past eight years, though the front lines have remained largely static since the signing of a 2015 ceasefire that both sides accuse the other of regularly violating.

News of the troop withdrawal was hailed by Russian officials as proof that mounting speculation about a large-scale invasion of Ukraine was an invention of Western governments and media. The U.S. and Britain have repeatedly warned that a Russian attack on Ukraine could begin at any moment, with Mr. Biden reportedly telling allied governments that intelligence suggested an attack could begin on Wednesday.

In a video address on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also referenced the reports that a war could start Wednesday, though his office later said Mr. Zelensky was being “ironic” about the possibility and hadn’t meant to suggest that he had any hard information about when a possible invasion might begin.

“February 15, 2022, will go down in history as the day Western war propaganda failed. Humiliated and destroyed without a single shot fired,” Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, wrote on her Telegram channel after the pullback of some forces was announced.

Latest troop locations

Russian military

positions

NATO troops

U.S. troops*

Baltic

Sea

ESTONIA

1,150

NATO members

RUSSIA

LATVIA

1,650

Kaliningrad

(RUSSIA)

Moscow

LITHUANIA

1,100

500

+130,000

Russian troops

around

Ukraine

BELARUS

Minsk

POLAND

1,060

5,400

Kyiv

UKRAINE

209,000

active

troops

MOLDOVA

Donbas

Controlled by

pro-Russian

separatists

ROMANIA

4,000

1,000

Crimea

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

ITALY

Black

Sea

BULGARIA

200 200

200km

TURKEY

*Some U.S. troops included in NATO figures

graphic news, Sources: NATO; Rochan Consulting; Bloomberg;

Reuters; BBC; The Drive; Naval News

Latest troop locations

Russian military

positions

NATO troops

U.S. troops*

Baltic

Sea

ESTONIA

1,150

NATO members

RUSSIA

LATVIA

1,650

Kaliningrad

(RUSSIA)

Moscow

LITHUANIA

1,100

500

+130,000

Russian troops

around

Ukraine

BELARUS

Minsk

POLAND

1,060

5,400

Kyiv

UKRAINE

209,000

active

troops

MOLDOVA

Donbas

Controlled by

pro-Russian

separatists

ROMANIA

4,000

1,000

Crimea

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

ITALY

Black

Sea

BULGARIA

200 200

200km

TURKEY

*Some U.S. troops included in NATO figures

graphic news, Sources: NATO; Rochan Consulting; Bloomberg;

Reuters; BBC; The Drive; Naval News

Latest troop locations

Russian military

positions

NATO troops

U.S. troops*

Baltic

Sea

ESTONIA

1,150

NATO members

RUSSIA

LATVIA

1,650

Kaliningrad

(RUSSIA)

Moscow

LITHUANIA

1,100

500

+130,000

Russian troops

around

Ukraine

BELARUS

Minsk

POLAND

1,060

5,400

Kyiv

UKRAINE

209,000

active

troops

MOLDOVA

Donbas

Controlled by

pro-Russian

separatists

ROMANIA

4,000

1,000

Crimea

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

ITALY

Black

Sea

BULGARIA

200 200

200km

TURKEY

*Some U.S. troops included in NATO figures

graphic news, Sources: NATO; Rochan Consulting; Bloomberg;

Reuters; BBC; The Drive; Naval News

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his country would need to see hard evidence before it believed the crisis had passed. “Russia makes all kinds of statements all the time, so we have a rule: We will believe in de-escalation when we see the withdrawal of troops,” he said.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst, agreed that it was too soon to draw conclusions about the apparent redeployments. He told The Globe that it could be the start of a withdrawal “or a tactical/strategic diversion. Anyways, we will know for sure very soon.”

The Duma vote to ask Mr. Putin to recognize the Donbas republics added to the sense the crisis might be changing shape, rather than ending. The Duma unexpectedly supported a Communist Party proposal to send the appeal directly to Mr. Putin, over a motion supported by Mr. Putin’s own United Russia party that would have seen the matter first referred to the Foreign Ministry for consultations.

Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, a member of United Russia and a close aide to Mr. Putin, said recognizing Donetsk and Lugansk as independent “will create grounds for guaranteeing the security and protection of the inhabitants of the republics from external threats.”

Russia has repeatedly accused Ukraine of preparing to try and retake the two regions by force, something Ukrainian officials deny.

An estimated 3.7 million people live in the militia-controlled parts of Donetsk and Lugansk, which have seen little economic development over the past eight years. Hundreds of thousands of residents of the region have been given Russian passports since 2014.

Speaking alongside Mr. Putin in Moscow, the 63-year-old Mr. Scholz said that he hoped for a de-escalation in Ukraine, adding that his generation never wanted to see another war in Europe. Mr. Putin, 69, interjected that there had already been recent wars in Europe, pointing to NATO’s involvement in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. When Mr. Scholz countered that NATO intervention in Kosovo had been to stop “mass murder,” Mr. Putin retorted “according to our estimates, what is happening today in Donbas is genocide.”

While both sides have accused each other of war crimes in the Donbas conflict, there is no evidence of anything that would meet the definition of genocide, which is a co-ordinated campaign aimed at eliminating an entire ethnic group.

In January, Amnesty International said both Russian and Ukrainian forces were guilty of violating international humanitarian law by targeting civilian areas with “imprecise explosive weapons” – and it was concerned that any new Russian military action in Ukraine would lead to a surge in violations.

With files from Adrian Morrow

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