BERLIN – Russian President Vladimir Putin said after hosting Germany's chancellor that Moscow was ready for talks with the United States and NATO on military transparency, missile deployment limits and other security issues.
Putin's statement on Tuesday added to signs of easing tensions over a Russian military buildup near Ukraine and fears of a possible invasion. Hours earlier, Russia announced that some units participating in military exercises would begin returning to their bases.
But U.S. President Joe Biden said the U.S. had not verified Russia’s claim and that an invasion was still a distinct possibility. He said the U.S. would give diplomacy “every chance” to prevent a Russian invasion, but he struck a skeptical tone about Moscow’s intentions.
Much remains unclear about Russia's plans and how the crisis will play out.
Here’s a look at what is happening where and why:
WHAT IS HAPPENING WITH RUSSIAN TROOPS?
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 announcement came a day after Western officials said some forces and military hardware were moving toward the Ukrainian 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 holding major exercises.
Biden said 150,000 Russian forces are now massed near Ukraine and in neighboring Belarus, an increase from an earlier U.S. estimate of 130,000 troops.
HOW DO OTHERS SEE THAT?
Speaking alongside Putin in Moscow, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said: “That we are now hearing that some troops are being withdrawn is in any case a good signal, and we hope that more will follow.”
Scholz didn’t say whether Germany had any evidence a troop pullback was in fact happening.
Ukraine's leaders voiced skepticism, and others also were cautious.
“Russia constantly makes various statements,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. “That’s why we have the rule: We won’t believe when we hear, we’ll believe when we see. When we see troops pulling out, we’ll believe in de-escalation.”
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said France was trying to confirm the information about Russian troop movements and he would speak “carefully.”
“But if confirmed, that’s obviously a good thing. That would be a sign of de-escalation, which we have been calling for for several weeks. That would also confirm that we were right to reinitiate dialogue,” Attal said. French President Emmanuel Macron met with Putin in Moscow last week and spoke with Biden on Tuesday.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that “so far, we have not seen any de-escalation on the ground, not seen any signs of reduced Russian military presence on the borders of Ukraine.”
Stoltenberg said Russia has in the past moved into areas, like Belarus, with troops and equipment, then pulled back while leaving military material in place for rapid use later. He said that NATO wants to see a “significant and enduring withdrawal of forces, troops, and not least the heavy equipment.”
However, Stoltenberg said there are “some grounds for cautious optimism” for diplomatic efforts given the signals coming from Moscow.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Russia was sending “mixed signals.”
“We are seeing Russian openness to conversations,” Johnson said after a meeting of his government’s COBRA crisis committee. “On the other hand, the intelligence we are seeing today is still not encouraging.”
He said Russia continued to build field hospitals in Belarus near the Ukrainian border, which “can only be construed as preparation for an invasion.”
WHAT IS PUTIN SAYING?
Putin noted after his talks with Germany's Scholz that the U.S. and NATO rejected Moscow’s demand to keep Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations out of NATO, halt weapons deployments near Russian borders and to roll back alliance forces from Eastern Europe.
But the U.S. and NATO agreed to discuss a range of security measures that Russia had previously proposed.
Putin said Russia was ready to engage in talks on limiting the deployment of intermediate range missiles in Europe, transparency of drills and other confidence-building measures. But he reemphasized the need for the West to heed Russia’s main demands.
WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING ON THE DIPLOMATIC FRONT?
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. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he conveyed to Zelenskyy during a phone call Japan's strong support for diplomatic efforts and sanctions against Russia in case of aggression.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE LATEST CYBERATTACKS?
A series of cyberattacks on Tuesday knocked the websites of the Ukrainian army, the defense ministry and major banks offline, Ukrainian authorities said.
Still, there was no indication the relatively low-level distributed-denial-of-service attacks might be a smokescreen for more serious and damaging cyber mischief.
At least 10 Ukrainian websites were unreachable, including those of the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Culture Ministry and Ukraine’s two largest state banks.
The Ukrainian Information Ministry’s Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security suggested Russia could be behind the attacks. But quick attribution in cyberattacks is typically difficult, as aggressors often try to hide their tracks.
Ukraine has been subject to a steady diet of Russian aggression in cyberspace.
WHAT DOES THE U.S. SENATE HAVE TO SAY?
In a rare bipartisan accord, Senate leaders issued a joint statement Tuesday signaling solidarity with an independent Ukraine and issuing a stern warning that Russia would pay a “severe price” of sanctions if it invades.
Senators of both parties have been eager to show a unified front from the U.S. But they shelved for now their own sanctions legislation, unable to resolve differences over the scope and timing and deferring to the White House strategy for edging Russia away from the crisis.
“In this dark hour,” the 12 Democratic and Republican senators declared, they wanted to make sure the strong U.S. position was clear to the people of Ukraine and to Putin.
WHAT DO RUSSIAN LAWMAKERS WANT?
Russian lawmakers called on Putin to recognize rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine, the 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.”
Putin said the motion reflects the Russian public’s concern about people living in eastern Ukraine. He noted, however, that Russia continues to believe that a 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany should serve as the main vehicle for resolving disputes over eastern Ukraine.
Scholz said a process to shore up that agreement “should be supported by everyone and held up by no one.”
“Of course, if the resolution the (Russian) parliament agreed to today became reality, that would mean flouting the Minsk agreement,” Scholz added. “I think all involved know that … then the process would be broken off and ended, and that would be a political catastrophe.”
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 cast the U.S. warnings of an imminent attack as “hysteria” and “absurdity,” and many Russians believe that Washington is deliberately stoking panic and fomenting tensions to trigger a conflict for domestic reasons.
Putin’s angry rhetoric about NATO’s plans to expand to Russia’s “doorstep” and its refusal to hear Moscow’s concerns has struck a chord with the public, tapping into a sense of betrayal by the West after the end of the Cold War and widespread suspicion about Western designs.
Dasha Litvinova in Moscow, Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Lorne Cook in Brussels, Jill Lawless in London and Lolita C. Baldor, Aamer Madhani and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow all AP stories on tensions over Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.