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Ukraine invasion fears ebb as Russia signals desire to de-escalate

The White House doubts Moscow is pulling back troops from Ukraine's borders, but the Kremlin insists it does not want to invade its southwestern neighbor.

(CN) — The feared invasion of Ukraine on Wednesday – labeled as Western “hysteria” and warmongering by the Kremlin – failed to take place and Moscow said it was sending home troops engaged in war drills near Ukraine's borders and sent other signs showing it may feel it's time to de-escalate tensions.

Still, the United States and NATO doubted Russian troops were withdrawing from attack positions around Ukraine's borders and warned that the threat of an invasion remained high.

“There’s what Russia says and then there’s what Russia does, and we haven’t seen any pullback of its forces,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on MSNBC. “They remain massed in a very threatening way along Ukraine’s borders.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Moscow said it was withdrawing some troops involved in large-scale military drills around Ukraine and it issued images purportedly showing the withdrawal of tanks and other military hardware out of Crimea, a peninsula it annexed in 2014, sparking a conflict that is now eight years old. The annexation came after a pro-Russian Ukrainian president was overthrown during the U.S.-backed “Maidan Revolution.”

“We urge the Western countries to stop whipping up anti-Russian hysteria,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova at a briefing on Wednesday, as reported by Tass, the Russian news agency. “We urge them to stop pumping Kyiv with weapons. These actions negatively affect both the settlement of the conflict in Donbas and the general situation on the track of security and stability in Europe.”

After massing troops along Ukraine's borders in late fall, a move similar to one Russia had done last April, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a set of demands calling on NATO to retreat from Russia's borders and to not allow Ukraine to become a member. He called Ukrainian membership in the anti-Russia military alliance a “red line.” The White House and NATO rejected those demands as non-starters.

In response to Russia's troop buildup, which might have been done to parry a potential Ukrainian military offensive against pro-Russian militants in the breakaway Donbas region, the U.S. and its NATO allies stepped up military aid to Kyiv, further escalating tensions that are at their worst now as Russian and Belarusian troops carry out live-fire military drills.

Ukraine's national flag waves in Kyiv on Feb. 13, 2022, with the Motherland Monument behind it on the right. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

The exercises are scheduled to end on Sunday, the same day the Winter Olympics in Beijing end. Conducting the drills during the Olympics prompted speculation that Russia might try to invade during the Games because in 2008 it invaded Georgia during the Summer Olympics in Beijing and it invaded Crimea during the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

After weeks of tension, Moscow's demands and military pressure seem to have scored the Kremlin a few points in this major crisis and could allow Putin the room he needs to order a de-escalation and claim victory in the standoff.

Due to the crisis, the frozen conflict in Ukraine and Russia's global role have jumped back to the top of American and European political agendas. In Europe, the dangerous standoff has focused the attention of European Union leaders, most significantly French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, on trying to improve relations with Russia.

In Washington, Russia is back at the forefront of strategic thinking for U.S. President Joe Biden's administration, which has struck a much more antagonistic tone against Putin than former President Donald Trump.

“It is too early to give final assessments. But we can say that Putin won a tactical victory,” said Italian political scientist Lucio Caracciolo in an interview with La Stampa newspaper, as reported by Tass. “He ensured that Russia regained a role to be reckoned with by the United States, he has started Russian-American talks on global strategic arms and the European security architecture, and the destabilization of Ukraine has ensured that the country will not join NATO.”

Caracciolo said the Ukraine crisis has allowed Putin to prove that Russia is “a great power.” Caracciolo is the director of Limes, an Italian geopolitical monthly magazine.

He doubted Russia wanted to invade Ukraine because it would have been unpopular in Russia and undermined Putin's own thesis that Ukrainians and Russians are one people who can be stronger united than divided.

“By maintaining tension, he achieved all his goals, starting with the discussion of global security,” he told La Stampa.

Among his achievements, Putin has made it extremely unlikely that NATO will accept Ukraine into the alliance and he's damaged Ukraine economically, making it less attractive to investors, Caracciolo said.

In television interviews on Wednesday, Blinken presented the crisis as a win for NATO and one that goes against Putin's “stated interests.”

“NATO has only gotten more united, more solidified as a result of the threat of Russian aggression, and of course, for defensive reasons, is moving more forces closer to Russia,” Blinken said. “We’ve seen Russia’s actions alienate more and more of the Ukrainian people from Russia. That’s exactly what Putin says he doesn’t want.”

“We remain committed to seeing if we can find a diplomatic resolution,” Blinken said on ABC. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s the responsible thing to do. It would avert a war. But again, it really is President Putin’s choice to make, and what we’re seeing on the border remains deeply, deeply concerning.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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