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Biden says Russian attack on Ukraine still possible, sees no evidence of troop withdrawal

President Joe Biden joins the virtual ASEAN East Asia Summit, Oct. 27, 2021. (White House/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. President Joe Biden said Washington does not yet see evidence of a Russian troop withdrawal from areas near the border with Ukraine and warned that an invasion by Moscow remained a possibility.

During a 10-minute speech to the nation on February 15, Biden held out hope that diplomacy would work but said the United States would be ready to hit Russia hard with sanctions if it invades Ukraine.

He also appeared to prepare Americans for consequences domestically, saying they could face higher energy prices should Russia escalate, triggering sanctions, but said that it was worth the price to defend democracy.

“To be clear, if Russia decides to invade that will also have consequences here at home. The American people understand that defending democracy and liberty is never without cost,” he said.

Biden said he is working on mitigating any impact on oil prices, which already are near eight-year highs. Russia is among the three largest oil producers in the world and sanctions could disrupt exports.

The president’s speech comes a day before the date his administration reportedly said Russia could potentially launch its attack on Ukraine, according to U.S. media outlets.

Earlier in the day, Russia’s Defense Ministry said it had begun to withdraw some troops located near Ukraine’s border, raising hopes of a de-escalation of tensions.

“That would be good, but we have not yet verified that,” Biden said, adding Russian troops — which he estimated at over 150,000 — remain “very much in a threatening position.”

He said despite the possibility of an attack high-level diplomacy to resolve the crisis should be given every chance to succeed.

The U.S. president also spoke directly to the Russian people.

“To the citizens of Russia: You are not our enemy, and I don’t believe you want a bloody, destructive war against Ukraine,” Biden said.

“We are ready to work further together. We are ready to go down the negotiations track,” Putin told a joint press conference with Scholz as he confirmed an earlier Russian Defense Ministry statement of a partial pullback of troops.

Scholz said he saw some hints of progress in his talks with Putin and called Russian claims of a troop pullback a “good sign” toward de-escalating a crisis that has reverberated far beyond Europe.

“There were enough points of departure indicating a good development,” he said. “It shows that it is worth sticking with it and trying to make progress despite broad points of disagreement.”

Putin said Russia “of course” does not want to see the outbreak of war but added he was disappointed that there had not been a constructive response to Russia’s security demands.

The West has threatened to impose severe sanctions on Russia should it invade Ukraine. However, the United States and its European allies have differences over which sanctions to impose and what military actions would trigger them, something some analysts say Putin is seeking to exploit.

Germany is heavily dependent on Russian energy to fuel its economy, Europe’s largest.

Biden said last week at a White House meeting with Scholz that he would impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2, the new Russian natural-gas pipeline to Germany, if the Kremlin proceeded with an attack on Ukraine.

Scholz declined to say whether Berlin was ready to put the $11 billion pipeline on the sanctions table.

Nord Stream 2 would reroute gas destined for Germany under the Baltic Sea, circumventing an existing land route through Ukraine and depriving Kyiv of about $2 billion in transit fees.

During the press conference with Scholz, Putin reiterated that Russian-German energy cooperation remained a priority for Moscow and called Berlin a key partner.

Putin claimed Nord Stream 2 would guarantee European energy security, a claim Washington rejects.

Scholz’s trip to the Russian capital follows similar trips for crisis talks last week by Macron and two British ministers.

Scholz, who met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 14 in Kyiv, had urged Russia to take immediate steps toward reducing the tensions triggered by the buildup of troops and military hardware near the border with Ukraine.

Russia has insisted it has no plan to invade but at the same time has said it wants guarantees on European security issues, including a commitment by NATO not to expand to countries like Ukraine, or another former Soviet republic, Georgia.

However, Russia’s envoy to the European Union warned on February 15 that Moscow could invade Ukraine if “provoked” by an attack on Russian citizens inside the country.

“We will not invade Ukraine unless we are provoked to do that,” Vladimir Chizhov was quoted as saying by Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency.

Chizhov’s comments follow repeated warnings by Washington that Russia is planning so-called “false flag” incidents as a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine.

The U.S. warnings were echoed by British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who said on February 15 that an imminent invasion of Ukraine remained very probable, and Russian troops could reach Kyiv “very, very quickly.”

“It is still the case that an invasion could be imminent, and it is highly likely,” she said.

Amid U.S. warnings of a possible imminent Russian invasion, Zelenskiy decreed February 16 a day of unity.

U.S. intelligence has reportedly indicated February 16 as a possible date for Russian military action.

“We are told that February 16 will be the day of the invasion, we will make it the day of unity,” Zelenskiy said in a video on the evening of February 14.

Ukrainians are expected to raise flags across the country and sing the anthem at 10 a.m. local time. “Let’s show the whole world our unity,” Zelenskiy said.