Defending Ukraine’s freedom could harm the US economy

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MOSCOW — President Joe Biden on Tuesday acknowledged the likelihood that U.S. and allied sanctions against Russia in retaliation for an invasion of Ukraine will have a significant impact on the U.S. economy, including possible price hikes and disruption of the country’s energy supply.

“The American people understand that standing up for democracy and freedom is never free,” Biden said in remarks to the White House on the unfolding crisis. “I won’t pretend it will be painless.”

He said the administration was working proactively to try to anticipate supply issues by working with energy producers and shippers on contingency plans, and said he would work with Congress on unspecified “additional measures to protect consumers and address the impact of pump prices”.

Biden also said on Tuesday that the United States had “not yet verified” Russia’s claim that some of its forces have withdrawn from the Ukrainian border. He said an invasion of Ukraine remained a distinct possibility.

Biden spoke hours after Russia announced that some units participating in military exercises near Ukraine’s borders would begin returning to their bases. Earlier on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia was ready for talks with the United States and NATO on military transparency, missile deployment limits and other security issues.

But Biden continued to express skepticism about Russia’s intentions. Biden again warned that if Russia invades Ukraine, the United States will “rally the world to oppose its aggression.”

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s previous story follows below..

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday he welcomes a security dialogue with the West as his military says it has withdrawn some of its troops near Ukraine — signals that could indicate that the Kremlin has opted for a diplomatic route for now despite Western fears of an imminent Russian invasion of its neighbor.

Putin has said he does not want war and will rely on negotiations as he insists the West stop Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. At the same time, he did not commit to a full troop withdrawal, saying Russia’s next moves in the stalemate will depend on how the situation develops.

As the overtures calmed global markets which were on edge amid the worst East-West tensions in decades, Washington and its European allies remained cautious, saying they wanted to see evidence of a Russian pushback.

The United States and NATO have warned that more than 130,000 Russian forces massed near Ukraine could invade at any moment, and they have sent troops and military supplies to reinforce NATO members in Europe from ballast. Russia has denied having such plans, demanding that the West keep Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations out of the alliance, stop weapons deployments near Russia’s borders and roll back forces from Europe by ballast.

The United States and its allies flatly rejected the demands, but offered Russia to start talks on ways to strengthen security in Europe.

Speaking after meeting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin said the West had agreed to discuss a ban on the deployment of missiles in Europe, restrictions on military exercises and other confidence-building measures – questions that Moscow had put on the table years ago.

He said Russia was willing to discuss “some of these elements”, but added that it would only do so “in connection with the main issues which are of paramount importance to us”.

Asked if there could be a war in Europe, Putin said Russia doesn’t want it, but said Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership poses a threat important for the security of his country.

While Scholz reiterated that NATO’s eastward expansion “is not on the agenda – everyone knows that very well”, Putin countered that Moscow would not be reassured by such insurance.

“They tell us it won’t happen tomorrow,” Putin said. “Well, when will that happen? Two days later? What does this change for us in historical perspective? Nothing.”

He went on to say that the expansion of NATO violates the principle of the indivisibility of security enshrined in international documents.

“We want to resolve this issue now within the framework of the negotiation process by peaceful means,” Putin said. “We very much hope that our partners will hear our concerns and take them seriously.”

Scholz also said diplomatic options are “far from exhausted” and welcomed the announcement of a troop withdrawal as a “good signal”, adding: “We hope others will follow.”

The Russian Ministry of Defense released images of tanks and howitzers driving on railway platforms and other tanks driving on snowy fields. He did not reveal where or when the footage was taken, or where the vehicles were heading, other than “to permanent deployment locations”.

Russian forces continue to threaten Ukraine along the eastern border and from the Black Sea Crimean Peninsula which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014, the year it also supported a separatist insurgency in the east of the country. Other Russian troops threaten Ukraine in Belarus, where they have been deployed for large-scale joint exercises.

A U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Pentagon analysts were reviewing Russian withdrawal requests.

Ukraine has expressed skepticism about Russia’s statements on backsliding.

“We will not believe when we hear, we will believe when we see. When we see the troops withdrawing, we will believe in de-escalation,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that “so far we have seen … no sign of a reduction in the Russian military presence on Ukraine’s borders”, adding that the alliance wants to see a “significant and lasting withdrawal of forces, troops and especially heavy equipment.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss reiterated that the danger of invasion still exists. Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt issued a similar warning, and Estonia’s foreign intelligence agency said the Russian armed forces could launch an operation “from the second half of February”.

Few Russians expect a war, after the Kremlin rejected Western warnings calling them “hysteria” and “absurdity”.

In a village in the Russian region of Belgorod, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Ukrainian border, residents continued to live as usual, even as more and more military personnel passed through the streets of the village.

“We are friends with Ukraine,” villager Lyudmila Nechvolod said. “We are really on the border, we really have relatives here and there, everyone has someone there (on the Ukrainian side). Nobody wants war.

Western officials who briefed The Associated Press said they saw no signs of de-escalation, but rather the opposite, with Russia continuing to build up its combat forces and other capabilities, including field hospitals. They said there were “some signs of diplomatic openness” and they believe Putin still hasn’t made the final decision to invade but has all the capabilities in place.

A US defense official said a small number of Russian ground units had been leaving larger staging areas for days, taking up positions closer to the Ukrainian border at what would be jumping off points if Putin launched a invasion. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss information not made public.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a call with Lavrov, according to a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the call had not been publicly announced.

President Joe Biden, who called French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday, is expected to make brief remarks later in the day on efforts to defuse tensions between Ukraine and Russia, according to the White House.

The United States “remains open to high-level diplomacy in close coordination with our allies,” according to an administration statement. “The United States continues to believe that diplomacy and de-escalation is the best way forward, but it is prepared for all scenarios.”

European leaders rushed to avert another war on the continent after several tense weeks that left Europeans feeling caught between Moscow and Washington, and pushed household energy prices higher due to an addiction on Russian gas.

Scholz’s meeting in the Kremlin came a day after sitting down with the Ukrainian leader in Kyiv. In his opening remarks in Moscow, Scholz addressed tensions in Ukraine, but also noted Germany‘s economic ties to Russia, which complicate Western efforts on how to punish Russia for an invasion.

Meanwhile, Russian lawmakers have urged Putin to recognize rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine as independent states. The State Duma, Russia’s lower house, voted to submit an appeal to Putin to that effect.

Putin said the motion reflected the Russian public’s sympathy for the suffering of people caught up in the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 14,000 people since 2014. He noted, however, that Russia continues to believe that a 2015 peace agreement brokered by France and Germany should serve as the main vehicle for resolving the separatist conflict.

Putin’s statement indicated he was not inclined to support parliament’s motion that would effectively invalidate the 2015 deal, which marked a major diplomatic coup for Moscow, asking Kyiv to offer a broad autonomy to separatist territories. It has been felt by many in Ukraine and its implementation has stalled.

By Vladimir Isachenkov and Yuras Karmanau, Associated Press

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