Amid diplomacy blitz, Russia says troops to leave Belarus after drills

American Age Official

Washington and Kyiv — High-stakes diplomacy is underway in Washington and Europe this week as President Biden and other leaders race to find an agreement with Russia to prevent the military standoff on Ukraine’s borders from escalating into all-out war. With more than 100,000 Russian forces positioned around Ukraine’s borders and the U.S. warning that President Vladimir Putin could order an invasion any time, Mr. Biden and his German counterpart tried to show a united front on Monday amid concerns that Europe’s biggest economy isn’t confronting Moscow as forcefully as it could.

Mr. Biden hosted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the White House, while Putin met for five hours behind closed doors in Moscow with French President Emmanuel Macron.

With additional U.S. troops and weaponry deploying to Eastern Europe, close to Russia’s border, President Biden warned Americans in Ukraine to get out, saying he would “hate to see them get caught in the crossfire.”

As CBS News senior White House and political correspondent Ed O’Keefe reports, Mr. Biden made the remark alongside Scholz, as the leaders insisted their countries were in agreement about the consequences Putin should face if he orders an invasion of Ukraine.

“He would pay a heavy price,” Mr. Biden said.

Germany has been less aggressive than other NATO allies in warning Russia against an invasion — which the Russian leader has consistently denied any plans of launching.

A major sticking point for Germany is Nord Stream 2, a more than 750-mile natural gas pipeline being built between Germany and Russia. Europe relies on Russia for a third of its natural gas supply, and if and when the pipeline is opened up, it’s estimated that tens of billions of dollars in gas revenue will flow back into Russia.

On Monday, Mr. Biden said unequivocally that if there’s a Russian invasion of Ukraine, “there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2… we will bring an end to it.”

Scholz didn’t go as far, saying only that NATO would be united in its response to any Russian invasion, but Mr. Biden insisted the U.S. and its allies were “not taking different steps, we will do the same steps.”

Dueling war games

So far, the warnings from the West and the influx of NATO forces to countries in what Putin considers his backyard have failed to persuade the Russian leader to pull back his troops.

Instead, Putin’s government announced on Monday that it will hold 10-day joint military exercises in Belarus, a Russian ally that sits on Ukraine’s northern border. Satellite imagery released over the weekend shows Russian and Belarusian troops and weapons, including attack aircraft, positioned within 30 miles of Ukrainian soil.

An image from video released by the Russian Ministry of Defense on February 8, 2022 shows Russian Navy ships at sea, after Russia announced the deployment of eight large landing ships to the Black Sea for pre-announced naval exercises. / Credit: Russian Defence Ministry/HandoutAn image from video released by the Russian Ministry of Defense on February 8, 2022 shows Russian Navy ships at sea, after Russia announced the deployment of eight large landing ships to the Black Sea for pre-announced naval exercises. / Credit: Russian Defence Ministry/Handout

An image from video released by the Russian Ministry of Defense on February 8, 2022 shows Russian Navy ships at sea, after Russia announced the deployment of eight large landing ships to the Black Sea for pre-announced naval exercises. / Credit: Russian Defence Ministry/Handout

Six Russian warships were on their way to the Black Sea, Russian officials said on Tuesday, to take part in sweeping naval exercises that Moscow announced in January. The drills are to involve every Russian naval fleet, from the Atlantic to the Pacific virtually everywhere in-between.

The Pentagon believes Putin now has in place at least 70% of the forces he would need to launch a full-scale land invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s military deployment around Ukraine is “well north of 100,000, and it continues to grow,” Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said on Monday.

Ukraine, reacting to the Russian exercises in Belarus, said on Tuesday that it would carry out its own military drills during the exact same timeframe.

More U.S. troops and machinery arrived in Poland, meanwhile, as part of American efforts to bolster the defenses of NATO allies around Ukraine. Ukraine, an American partner, is not a member of the transatlantic military alliance, and the White House has said no American forces will be deployed there.

The specter of simultaneous war games on either side of Ukraine’s borders, as both Russia and NATO continue bolstering their forces in the region, highlights the urgency of efforts to find a diplomatic solution.

Diplomacy in high gear

After his long meeting on Monday with the French leader, Putin indicated that he was prepared to continue negotiations to prevent the crisis from spiraling into a full-on war with Ukraine. He said President Macron had presented proposals to deescalate the crisis that could at least create “a foundation for our further steps.”

The Russian leader again denied any intention of invading Ukraine, and he agreed to have a call with Macron on Tuesday after the French leader visits Kyiv.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow, Russia, February 7, 2022. / Credit: Sputnik/Kremlin handout/REUTERSRussian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow, Russia, February 7, 2022. / Credit: Sputnik/Kremlin handout/REUTERS

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow, Russia, February 7, 2022. / Credit: Sputnik/Kremlin handout/REUTERS

Macron said on Tuesday that he believed his meeting with Putin would help to prevent a further escalation of the crisis, but the Kremlin quickly shot down reports that the Russian leader had agreed to refrain from further military exercises in the region.

Putin’s spokesman, however, did appear on Tuesday to try to ease any concerns that the thousands of Russian forces deployed to Belarus in recent weeks for the military exercises might remain there.

“No one ever said that Russian troops would remain on the territory of Belarus, there was no talk of this,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “We are talking about allied exercises, and it is understood that after these exercises are completed, the troops will return to their permanent locations.”

As U.S. and European leaders and military commanders try to read the clues from Moscow about Putin’s next step, Russian military analyst Alexander Baunov told CBS News foreign correspondent Imtiaz Tyab that in some ways, Putin is using the mere threat of military action to get what he wants: World powers negotiating amongst themselves over his security demands to prevent war.

“The fear of the war is a working political instrument,” Baunov told CBS News, to “make Russian demands and Russian concerns to be listened to.”

The inherent risk in this coercive form of diplomacy, Tyab noted, is if Russia doesn’t gain something, and soon, Putin may decide he has to use force to avoid looking weak.

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