Russian President Vladimir Putin received Germany’s chancellor, signaling that diplomacy could yet prevent what Western officials have described as an impending invasion of Ukraine, on Tuesday.
Russia said that certain military troops engaged in military exercises would begin returning to their bases, which could be another indicator that the Kremlin wants to cool things down.
However, there is still a lot of uncertainty regarding Russia’s objectives and how the Ukraine issue will play out.
Here’s a look at what is happening where and why:
WHAT IS THE RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT SAYING?
Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that some units participating in exercises would begin returning to their bases. But it wasn’t immediately clear where exactly these troops were deployed or how many were leaving.
The news came a day after Western officials said some forces and military hardware were moving toward the border, muddying the picture. Russia denies it has any plans to invade Ukraine, despite placing troops on Ukraine’s borders to the north, south and east and launching massive military drills nearby.
Russia has massed more than 130,000 troops near Ukraine. While the U.S. agreed that there was still a possibility of a diplomatic path out, Washington, London and other allies have kept up their warnings that those forces could move on Ukraine at any moment.
At a meeting with Putin on Monday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated that Russia was ready to keep talking about the security grievances that have led to the crisis.
Asked Tuesday about troops returning to permanent bases after exercises, Lavrov stressed that Russia holds military drills “on its own territory and according to its own plans, they start, go on and end as planned.”
Ukraine’s leaders expressed skepticism.
WHAT’S HAPPENING ON THE DIPLOMATIC FRONT?
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met Putin in Moscow, a day after he visited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv in a show of solidarity.
On Monday, Scholz demanded “clear steps to de-escalate the current tensions” from Russia. And he underlined Western unity in preparing to impose tough sanctions if Russia does encroach further into Ukraine, though once again he didn’t specify what exactly whose would be.
Scholz said that “we are in a position any day to take the necessary decisions.”
“No one should doubt the determination and preparedness of the EU, NATO, Germany and the United States, for example, when it comes to what has to be done if there is military aggression against Ukraine,” he added. “We will then act, and there will be very far-reaching measures that would have significant influence on Russia’s possibilities of economic development.”
Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau of Poland, currently the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, met Lavrov in Moscow. Rau said the OSCE has offered multilateral talks aimed at easing tensions.
Ukraine’s foreign minister hosted his Italian counterpart.
WHAT DO RUSSIAN LAWMAKERS WANT?
Russian lawmakers called on Putin to recognize rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine, the two self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, as independent states. The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, voted Tuesday to submit an appeal to Putin to that effect, put forward earlier by Russia’s Communist party.
Kyiv isn’t fulfilling the Minsk agreements, mediated by Germany and France in an effort to bring peace to eastern Ukraine, and “our citizens and compatriots that live in Donbas need help and support,” State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said on the Telegram messaging app.
Volodin said the document will be submitted to Putin “immediately.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier Tuesday that the issue of recognizing the self-proclaimed republics is “very, very relevant to the public.” But it was unclear what consequences if any the vote would have.
WHAT ARE NATO ALLIES SAYING?
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said a Russian invasion of Ukraine “could be imminent,” but there’s still time for Putin “to step away from the brink.”
Truss said before Russia made its announcement about pulling back some military units that “we believe that Vladimir Putin has not yet made a decision about whether to invade Ukraine. We think it’s highly likely.”
“There are huge numbers of troops lined up on the border. We know that they’re in a position to attack imminently, but he can still change his mind and that is why diplomacy is so vital,” she told Sky News.
Truss said an invasion might involve “an attack on Kyiv” as well as “an attack from the east.”
“What we do expect over the next few days is there could be an attempt of a false flag operation to create a pretext to claim the Ukrainians are attacking them, so that the Russians have a justification for invading Ukraine,” she added.
In Oslo, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt said that “a Russian attack on Ukraine may be imminent.”
Huitfeldt was speaking as Russia made its announcement that some units would be sent back to their bases.
Defense Minister Odd-Roger Enoksen said Norway is strengthening its contribution in Lithuania with 50-60 soldiers to strengthen the allied presence in the Baltic states. The contingent will be sent there for a three-month period, with a possibility of extension.
WHAT’S THE FEELING IN MOSCOW?
While the U.S. has warned that Russia could invade Ukraine any day, the drumbeat of war is all but unheard in Moscow, where pundits and ordinary people alike don’t expect Putin to attack Russia’s ex-Soviet neighbor.
The Kremlin has characterized US warnings of an impending attack as “hysteria” and “absurdity,” and many Russians feel the US is purposely inflaming panic and inflaming tensions in order to provoke a confrontation for domestic reasons.
Putin’s enraged language about NATO’s plans to expand to Russia’s “doorstep” and its inability to listen to Moscow’s concerns has resonated with the people, tapping into a sense of betrayal by the West following the end of the Cold War and widespread mistrust of Western intentions.