White House says Russian troop withdrawal claims are ‘false’

The White House has called the Kremlin’s claims that it is withdrawing forces from the Ukrainian border “false” and accused Russia of increasing its troop presence in the region by about 7,000 troops in recent days.

“Yesterday, the Russian government said it was withdrawing troops from the border of Ukraine . . . we now know it was false,” a senior Biden administration official said on Wednesday.

“In fact, we have now confirmed that in the last several days, Russia has increased its troop presence along the Ukrainian border by as many as 7,000 troops, with some arriving as recently as today.”

US officials declined to provide more details to substantiate the claims, but said the intelligence was “fairly authoritative”. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said Russia had concentrated about 150,000 troops on its border with Ukraine and in neighbouring Belarus.

“Just as Russian claims about withdrawing troops were false, so will be whatever false pretext they invent to justify this war of choice. No one should take these claims at face value,” the official added.

The UK offered a similar assessment. “Contrary to their claims, Russia continues to build up military capabilities near Ukraine,” said Jim Hockenhull, the UK’s defence intelligence chief. “This includes sightings of additional armoured vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital moving towards Ukraine’s borders. Russia has the military mass in place to conduct an invasion of Ukraine.”

The comments are the latest in the war of words between western allies and the Kremlin over the increasingly tense situation in Ukraine. Russian officials maintain they are withdrawing some of the troops as they pursue a diplomatic solution, but western officials say those comments are at odds with signs of advancing military preparation for an assault.

On Thursday, Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, repeated that Russian troops remained poised on the borders of Ukraine. “We have not seen any sign of withdrawal or de-escalation,” he told a Brussels meeting of the alliance and the defence ministers of Georgia and Ukraine, who are partners but not members of Nato..

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, has maintained that Russia is withdrawing some of its forces and accused Nato of having a “handicap” that prevented it from “soberly assessing the situation”.

Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, told Die Welt newspaper there would be no escalation “next week or the week after, or next month”.

The Nato defence ministers summit will be followed by the two-day Munich Security Conference in Germany, which will be attended by several western allies, as well as Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian president.

Zelensky on Wednesday expressed scepticism over the Russian claims, telling the BBC: “To be honest, we react to the reality we have and we don’t see any withdrawal yet. We just heard about it.”

Kamala Harris, US vice-president, will lead the American delegation to the conference in Munich, joining Antony Blinken, secretary of state, among other officials.

Senior Biden administration officials said Harris was attending to send a “resounding signal that engagement with our allies and partners is an absolutely critical part of our overall diplomacy and approach”.

The vice-president is expected to meet on Friday with Stoltenberg and leaders of the Baltic nations, before delivering a speech to the conference on Saturday. She will also speak with Zelensky and Olaf Scholz, German chancellor, US officials said.

Additional reporting by Andy Bounds in Brussels and Max Seddon in Moscow

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