HAS PUTIN BLINKED FIRST? Putin insists he DOESN’T want war and IS pulling Russian troops back from Ukraine border – but is it all a bluff?

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Russian tanks return from the ground shooting range near the Ukraine border
Credit: EPA

VLADIMIR Putin has appeared to blink first in the showdown with Ukraine – and insisted he didn’t want to go to war after crunch talks with Germany.

Tensions in Europe have reached boiling point in recent weeks over fears Russia could invade Ukraine as soon as tomorrow with a massive missile blitz and 200,000 troops.

Reports warned 60 per cent of Russia’s ground forces are still in striking range
Credit: East2West
Putin is likely to strike Ukraine without warning — possibly tomorrow Credit: AFP

Boris Johnson said there are “mixed signals” coming out of Russia about the prospect of an invasion after Moscow claimed to be withdrawing troops from near the border.

Russia’s defence ministry said it was pulling back some 10,000 troops from its Western and Southern to barracks after military drills. 

And Putin later confirmed moves to de-escalate the conflict – and vowed to press forward with negotiations.

But around 130,000 troops remain on Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders with around 40,000 pro-Putin forces in Belarus to the north.

Another 30,000 pro-Russian separatists were facing Ukraine defenders in the captured Donbas enclave.

British intelligence also suggested Russia has “more battalion tactical groups being brought closer to the border”.

And Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said he has “not seen any de-escalation on the ground” near Ukraine.

But the Russian president today insisted he doesn’t want war.

He said: “Do we want this or not? Of course, not. That is exactly why we put forward proposals for a process of negotiations.”

“Unfortunately, there has been no meaningful constructive response to our proposals,” he added.

Speaking after talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Moscow, Putin said he is prepared to continue talks on missiles and other security issues with the West.

“We are ready to work further together. We are ready to go down the negotiations track,” Putin told a press conference.

But following a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee, Mr Johnson suggested the intelligence he has received is “not encouraging”.

He said there is a “diplomatic opening” to resolve the crisis without a war.

Speaking to reporters in Downing Street, he said: “Last night going into today clearly there are signs of a diplomatic opening.”

But he warned the construction of field hospitals and the movement of extra forces closer to the border with Ukraine suggest preparations are being made for an invasion.

Mr Johnson said the Russians have the preparations in place to launch an invasion at “virtually any time”.

“So mixed signals, I think, at the moment,” he said.

Mr Johnson suggested Putin could order a strike from Belarus, through eastern Ukraine or up from southern Ukraine through Odesa and Kherson.

“There a lot of options that they have,” he said.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss suggested a “false flag” operation could be launched within days to give Moscow the pretext to launch an offensive.

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Meanwhile, Mr Stoltenberg said there is cause for “cautious optimism” in resolving the Ukraine crisis peacefully.

But he also questioned Russia’s claims to have withdrawn troops, telling a press conference in Brussels: “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.”

The German Chancellor welcomed Russia’s pull back of troops – and said there was still a chance to avert war through diplomatic talks.

‘GOOD SIGN’

“The diplomatic possibilities are far from being exhausted,” Scholz said at the news conference with Putin.

“That we hear now some troops have withdrawn is a good sign, we hope more will follow.

“It should be possible to find a solution. No matter how difficult and serious the situation seems to be, I refuse to say it is hopeless.”

Russia’s defence ministry said some troops in its military districts near Ukraine returned to their bases on Tuesday after completing drills.

While drills will continue across the country, some units have “completed their tasks as part of large-scale exercises”.

Military spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said: “Units of the Southern and Western military districts, having completed their tasks, have already begun loading onto rail and road transport and today they will begin moving to their military garrisons.”

Footage released showed tanks and other armoured vehicles being loaded onto railway flatcars.

The defence ministry said it would use trucks to move some of the military equipment while some troops would march to the barracks on their own.

The apparent movements run counter to urgent warnings from the US and the UK that Russia could invade Ukraine at any time.

And Ms Truss said she would need to see a full-scale removal of Russian troops from the Ukraine border to believe Moscow has no plans for an invasion.

Asked about the reports, she told LBC: “Certainly, our latest intelligence suggests that an invasion is imminent, that it’s highly likely, and that we’ve seen 100,000 troops stationed around the border.

“Separately, the Russians have claimed that they have no plans for an invasion, but we will need to see a full-scale removal of troops to show that is true.”

Meanwhile, Ukraine has insisted its diplomatic efforts with Western allies have been successful.


Latest developments

  • Russia’s defence ministry said some troops deployed near Ukraine are returning to bases after completing drills
  • German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow
  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson led another emergency Cobra meeting
  • Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said there continues to be a British “presence” in Kyiv
  • The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said the European Union is ready to discuss Russia’s security concerns
  • Norway will increase its contribution to Nato’s forces in Lithuania by between 50 and 60 troops
  • Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen discussed the Ukraine situation during a telephone call on Tuesday
  • The European Parliament has approved a $1.36billion EU aid package for Ukraine
  • Ukraine said its joint diplomatic efforts with Western allies have managed to avert a feared Russian invasion

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters today: “We and our allies have managed to prevent Russia from any further escalation.

“It is already the middle of February, and you see that diplomacy is continuing to work.”

But Ms Truss said Britain and the West are still “preparing for the worst”.

A Western intelligence assessment revealed: “We would expect multiple sequenced attacks and not a single strike.”

It could mean a sudden thrust against Kyiv, using precision strikes.

Other key cities would be encircled by Putin’s tanks and troops while being pounded by planes and helicopter gunships.

The Foreign Secretary warned Europe is now “on the brink of a war” with a Russian invasion “imminent and highly likely”.

And she fears a Russian invasion “wouldn’t stop at Ukraine”.

She told Sky News: “This I fear is an attack that wouldn’t stop at Ukraine, but would spread to Eastern Europe.

“If we saw an invasion into Ukraine, there would be severe costs in terms of a long-running conflict. It would undermine the long-term security of Europe.”

The grave assessment came as Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky declared tomorrow a day of unity and urged his people to stand and sing the national anthem at 10am.

He said: “We do not know how to give up and we will not learn to do so. We believe in our own strength and will continue to build the future together. We are united by love for Ukraine.”

It comes after Russia staged a frenzy of new military deployments and war games close to the Ukraine border in recent days.

Chilling footage showed hundreds of paratroopers dropped from the sky during drills in the Kostrama region.

And more than 30 warplanes took part in Black Sea naval exercises to destroy simulated enemy submarines in waters close to Ukraine.

Last night Boris Johnson held crisis talks with US President Joe Biden, after saying it was “pretty clear” Russia will invade within days.

He warned an invasion would result in a “protracted crisis with far reaching damage for both Russia and the world”.

Reports warned 60 per cent of Russia’s ground forces are in striking range.

Ms Truss said this morning: “I’m very worried about the situation. We could be on the brink of a war in Europe.

“That would have severe consequences not just for the people of Russia and Ukraine, but also for the broader security of Europe.

“There is still time for Vladimir Putin to step away from the brink. But there is only a limited amount of time for him to do that.”

She warned in the event of an invasion Kremlin troops could reach the capital Kyiv “very, very quickly” from neighbouring Belarus.

Ms Truss said the city would “certainly” be a high priority target.

And she said Moscow is likely to begin any attack with a “false flag operation” such as a faked attack on Russian separatists.

She said: “There could be false claims that they have been provoked to give a pretext for Russian invasion.

“What we have been doing is we’ve been calling out the Russians, we’ve been exposing their attempts to put a puppet government into Kyiv.

“Over the next few days there could be an attempt to claim the Ukrainians are attacking them, so the Russians have a justification for invading.”

In all, 140,000 combat-ready Russians are on its southern and eastern borders, with 40,000 on drills in Belarus to the north.

Putin sits down with Lavrov Credit: Reuters
A Ukrainian boy is shown how to use a rifle Credit: Getty

The Sun.Co.UK/News/

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