KYIV, Ukraine — The United States and Russia offered two starkly different versions of the reality on the ground surrounding Ukraine on Thursday, with the Kremlin offering its most detailed account yet of what it described as a partial troop withdrawal, while America and its NATO allies said the Russian threat continued to grow.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, who was joined by the NATO chief in Brussels, said Russia was continuing to move troops closer to Ukraine’s borders, adding fighter jets and getting supplied with blood in anticipation of losses on the battlefield.
“I was a soldier myself not too long ago,” Mr Austin said. “I know firsthand that you don’t do this stuff for no reason. And you definitely don’t if you’re about to pack your bags and head home.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Thursday that troops had redeployed hundreds of kilometers from Ukrainian border areas after conducting military exercises.
Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said logistics units from the Western Military District had traveled more than 400 miles from the Kursk region bordering Ukraine and returned to their base in the city of Dzerzhinsk in central Russia.
Several other military groups traveled more than 900 miles by rail with their equipment and were redeployed to Chechnya and Dagestan, he said. Troops currently engaged in military exercises in Belarus, northern Ukraine, will also return to their home bases once the exercises are over, General Konashenkov said in a statement.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov insisted the withdrawal was continuing. “This process takes time,” he said. “They can’t just be lifted into the air and fly away.”
Austin said Russia’s claims did not match intelligence assessments by the United States and its allies.
“We see them flying in more combat and support aircraft,” Austin said. “We see them honing their preparation in the Black Sea.”
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg echoed those comments.
“They have enough troops to launch a full-scale invasion,” he said, reiterating his assertion that Russia could attack Ukraine with very little warning.
Since late autumn, the number of troops that Russia has sent to the borders near Ukraine has steadily increased. In the first week of January, the United States estimated there were around 100,000. That figure rose to 130,000, then on Tuesday President Biden set the number at 150,000 – with brigades normally based as far as Siberia joining the force.
On Wednesday, a senior US official, who declined to be named, told reporters that far from ending its deployment, Moscow was adding 7,000 fighters.
The US official directly accused Russia of lying, saying there was new evidence it was mobilizing for war.
Reflecting the urgency of the moment, the 27 leaders of the member states of the European Union were to meet Thursday in Brussels for an extraordinary summit to discuss the crisis.
With the West essentially accusing Moscow of lying, the contours of a diplomatic solution to the crisis once again seemed very difficult to discern.
And even if Russia decides not to send tanks across the border, the huge deployment – along with alleged cyberattacks and economic pressure – is doing its own harm to Ukraine.
“It feels like we are witnessing a slow-motion train wreck unfolding before our eyes,” said Ben Hodges, former commander of US Army Europe. wrote on Twitter. “The Russian ground and naval forces currently deployed are like a boa constrictor around Ukraine, stifling its economy and further threatening its sovereignty.”
Using the threat against Ukraine as a bargaining chip, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin made sweeping demands, including the withdrawal of NATO forces from Eastern European countries that were under the former Soviet Union. The United States and its NATO allies say that will never happen.
Russia has defined the crisis as revolving around its fundamental security. And he says that even the distant prospect of Ukraine joining NATO poses an existential threat.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has once again made it clear that NATO membership is key to his country’s long-term security. “It’s not an ambition,” he said in brief comments to the BBC. “It’s our life.”