Feb 16, 2022 - Politics & Policy

U.S. says Russia's claims of troop withdrawal were "false"


Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/TASS via Getty Images

The U.S. now believes that Russia's claims that it is withdrawing troops from near Ukraine are "false," and that Moscow has in fact increased its presence on the border "by as many as 7,000 troops" in recent days, a senior administration official told reporters Wednesday.

Why it matters: The explosive claim suggests that Vladimir Putin publicly offered to reopen negotiations "while privately mobilizing for war," the official said.

  • The official did not provide evidence for their claims, but satellite imagery and open-source intelligence shows a continued Russian military buildup near Ukraine in recent days.

What they're saying: "Yesterday, the Russian government said it was withdrawing troops from Ukraine. They received a lot of attention for that claim, both here and around the world. But we now know it was false," the official said, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity.

  • "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 7,000 troops with some arriving as recently as today."
  • "The Russians have also said in recent days that they are prepared to engage in diplomacy, as we and our allies have repeatedly offered. But every indication we have now is they mean only to publicly offer to talk and make claims about de-escalation while privately mobilizing for war."

What to watch: The official said the U.S. has continued to receive indications that Russia could use a "false pretext" to justify an invasion of Ukraine, including fabricated allegations of atrocities against Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region.

  • "We have already seen an increase in false claims by the Russians in the past few days, including reports of an unmarked grave of civilians allegedly killed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, statements that the U.S. and Ukraine are developing biological or chemical weapons, and that the West is funneling in guerrillas to kill locals," the official said.
  • "Each of these allegations is categorically false, and we expect more false reports from Russian state media over the coming days," they continued.
  • "We don't know what form of false pretext will take, but we hope the world is ready. Just as Russia's claims about withdrawing troops were false, so will be whatever pretext they invent to justify this war of choice."

Between the lines: Repeatedly throughout this crisis, the Biden administration has publicized intelligence about Russia's possible moves as a way to disrupt Putin's plans and preempt Russian disinformation.

  • "We’re not putting forward this intelligence to start a war, which has happened in the past. We are putting forward this intelligence to stop a war," White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN this weekend.

Zoom out: The U.K.'s defense intelligence chief made a similar assertion about Russia's purported withdrawal earlier Wednesday.

  • "We have not seen evidence that Russia has withdrawn forces from Ukraine’s borders. Contrary to their claims, Russia continues to build up military capabilities near Ukraine," Lt. Gen. Jim Hockenhull said in a rare on-the-record statement.
  • "This includes sightings of additional armored vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital moving towards Ukraine’s borders. Russia has the military mass in place to conduct an invasion of Ukraine."

What's next: Vice President Kamala Harris will travel this weekend to the Munich Security Conference — where there will not be a Russian delegation for the first time in over two decades — to deliver a speech and meet with European allies.

  • That includes NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, with whom she'll discuss additional U.S. military support intended to shore up the alliance's eastern flank.
  • On the second day of the conference, Harris is expected to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
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