LVIV, Ukraine -- Russia's military said some troops massed near Ukraine will begin returning to their bases on Tuesday following the completion of what it called "exercises," a potential sign of de-escalation amid continuing fears of a possible Russian invasion.
Russia's Ministry of Defense said units from its southern and western military districts, which have deployed thousands of troops close to Ukraine's border, had begun returning to barracks. Video released by the military showed what it said were tanks pulling back and being loaded onto rail transports. A spokesman for Russia's southern military district also said its servicemen had begun leaving Crimea, where Russia has built up a large force.
The United States and other western officials, as well as independent experts, expressed caution about the development, saying they would wait to see if Russia really pulled back the troops. Major Russian exercises are continuing in neighboring Belarus to the north of Ukraine and in the Black Sea.
NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that for now, the alliance had not seen "any sign of de-escalation on the ground from the Russian side" but noted there were signs for diplomacy from Moscow that gave grounds for "cautious optimism."
Ukraine's foreign minister said officials would believe the Russian withdrawal "when we see it."
Hopes that Russia might be moving to de-escalate tensions were almost immediately dimmed by Russia's parliament, which on Tuesday voted to pass a law calling on President Vladimir Putin to recognize two Russian-controlled breakaway regions of Ukraine as independent. The law appeals to Putin to recognize the self-proclaimed "People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk" in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian statelets that were created with Moscow's backing and troops during fighting in 2014. Separatist forces, backed by Russian troops, have continued to fight a low-intensity war with the Ukrainian government.
The move to recognize the regions would open a path for Russia to formally annex the regions, as it did Crimea eight years ago. This step would likely trigger more Western sanctions and further escalate the crisis. The vote now puts the decision in Putin's hands.
But Putin himself on Tuesday later appeared to suggest he would not move to recognize the regions immediately. At a press conference after meeting with Germany's new chancellor Olaf Scholz, who was visiting Moscow, Putin said that while he believed a "clear majority" of Russia supported the step, for now, he believed Russia should continue to work within the existing peace agreement aimed at ending the conflict in Ukraine, the 2015 Minsk agreement.
"I start from that we must do everything for the resolution of the problem of Donbas, but do it first of all starting from the unfulfilled possibilities of the Minsk agreement," Putin said.
The parliament vote was denounced in Ukraine, with an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky calling it an "escalatory action." Ukraine's foreign ministry said if Putin did follow through with recognition, Russia would "de-facto and de-jure exit the Minsk agreements, with all the accompanying consequences."
Putin sent mixed messages during the press conference with Scholz, the latest western leader to visit Moscow to urge a diplomatic exit to the crisis. While Putin acknowledged some Russian troops were withdrawing near the Ukraine border, he signaled he did not consider the crisis to be over, saying Russia was still insisting on its key demands for a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO.
The U.S. and NATO countries have rejected that as a non-starter but offered to engage with Russia on more modest issues, including limits of missile deployments and military exercises. Putin said he was ready to work with the West of discussing some of those proposed confidence-building measures, including a possible restoration of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty that the Trump administration pulled out from.
But Putin insisted those discussions could not mean Russia was dropping its central demand on NATO.
"We hear that Ukraine isn't ready today to join NATO and they say that they won't take it tomorrow. And will they take it then when it is ready? Well, for us that might already be too late," Putin said. "And so we want to resolve this question right now. In the nearest future in the course of the negotiating process, with peaceful means," Putin said.
Asked what the week would bring, Putin didn't rule out the crisis could still escalate, though he repeated Russia does "not want war."
"How will Russia act next? According to the plan!" Putin said that no one knew how the situation would develop but that Russia would strive to come to an agreement diplomatically.
Scholz said at the press conference that Russian recognizing the separatist regions would be a "catastrophe." He expressed hope that diplomacy can work, but said Russia should take "clear steps to de-escalate the current tensions" and warned European Union countries would take "far-reaching measures" in the event of Russian "military aggression" against Ukraine.
The U.S. and other western countries have warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could come this week.
Before the Russian announcement of the partial withdrawal, satellite images and videos spotted on social media by open source researchers appeared to show Russian forces continuing to move closer to Ukraine, with some units taking up what experts said looked like forward positions. The U.S. on Monday announced it was closing its embassy in Kyiv and moving key diplomats to Lviv in western Ukraine amid an "accelerated" buildup by Russian forces.
Satellite images published by the private company, Maxar, showed substantial new forces close to Ukraine in Crimea, Belarus and in western Russia, including attack helicopters.
Cristo Grozev, a well-known open source researcher, said a team working with the group, Conflict Intelligence Team-- that has been tracking the Russian build up for months-- so far had seen evidence of a Russian withdrawal.
"This may well change in the next hours or days," Grozev wrote on Twitter. But for now, he said, the convoys they had been tracking moving towards the Ukraine border "are still moving in the same direction."
On Tuesday evening, Ukraine said a cyberattack had hit the websites of its military and two of the country's largest state banks. The national cybersecurity center said a DDoS attack had struck the public websites of the ministry of defense and Ukraine's armed forces, causing some disruption to online banking for PrivatBank and the State Saving Bank of Ukraine.
Russia's announcement that it was pulling back some forces came a day after Russia's Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu briefed Putin that Russia's huge military drills would end in the "near future."
Shoigu told Putin that "part of the drills are approaching their completion and part would be completed in the near future."
Russia has consistently denied it has any intention to attack Ukraine using the more than 100,000 troops it has massed near its border. However, Russia has claimed warnings from the U.S. and other Western countries that it may be preparing to launch an invasion as "hysteria."
Tuesday "will go down in history as the day the Western propaganda war failed. Disgraced and destroyed without a shot being fired," Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia's Foreign Ministry, wrote on her Facebook page Tuesday.
Military exercises on an unprecedented scale are continuing in Belarus and are due to end on Feb. 20.
The U.S. has warned that Russia could launch an invasion of Ukraine this week, reportedly briefing NATO allies last week that it had intelligence the attack could come on Wednesday.
Ukraine's government has expressed more skepticism that Russia is ready to attack this week, suggesting it believes the massive Russian buildup is intended to pressure Ukraine with the threat of invasion. Zelensky, in a televised address Monday night, told Ukrainians he was declaring Wednesday, the alleged day of a possible Russian attack, a national holiday.
Zelensky's national security adviser, Oleksiy Danilov, told Ukrainian television Monday night that Ukraine did not see signs Russia is preparing to attack on Feb. 16 or 17.
"We recognize all the risks that there are for our country. But the situation is absolutely under control," he said.