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Germany's chancellor meets with Putin over Ukraine tensions

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

We begin this hour with the crisis on the Russia-Ukraine border. And there are some signs, small signs, today that this is still a diplomatic - that there is still a diplomatic path that could avert war in Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated today that some of the Russian troops massed along the border might be heading back. Putin shared that information after meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Moscow. But this afternoon at the White House, President Joe Biden said the U.S. has not verified Russian troops are heading back and that the crisis remains.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And the fact remains right now, Russia has more than 150,000 troops encircling Ukraine and Belarus and along Ukraine's border. And an invasion remains distinctly possible.

NADWORNY: We're going to catch up on all the day's events with NPR's Charles Maynes, who joins us from Moscow.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

NADWORNY: Hey, Charles. So what else did President Biden say today?

MAYNES: Well, it seemed consistent with what he and his administration had been saying throughout this crisis. It just seemed an attempt to engage a wider public about his thinking. You know, Biden said two paths were open, one in which Russia chooses diplomacy - which, of course, the West says it would clearly prefer - the other in which Russia chooses aggression against Ukraine but for which it would pay a heavy price, what Biden called a self-inflicted wound both through sanctions and the human cost to Russians and Ukrainians caught up in the fighting.

Now, Biden said he was encouraged by recent signs out of Moscow, but the fact was, as you noted in your intro, this conflict remained distinctly possible. Biden said he did say - he was saying all this not to provoke but to speak truth that the U.S. and NATO were not a threat to Russia, that Ukraine was not a threat to Russia, and the U.S. wasn't targeting Russia, which, of course, is not how the Kremlin has presented this crisis here. They say NATO expansion eastward cuts to its core security interests.

NADWORNY: But Putin hosted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz today and seemed to signal a path for increased diplomacy as well, right?

MAYNES: Well, he did. You know, Putin reiterated, though, Moscow's core demands that NATO pullback from Eastern Europe, as well as bar Ukraine from possible membership in the alliance. Yet when he was asked whether he wanted to attain those goals through a war, this is what Putin had to say.

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So Putin there is saying, of course, we don't want a war. And that's why, he argued, Russia was putting these security proposals forward to - for negotiation with the West. He's arguing they were intended for countries to come to an agreement that provided security for everyone, including Russia. Now, you know, Putin has said he has yet to see constructive responses from the U.S. to these core proposals on NATO in particular. But he indicated he was prepared to continue on a negotiating track on a range of issues that Biden mentioned, such as arms control, adding that they were mostly Russian ideas anyway.

NADWORNY: These reports of Russia saying some of its troops are leaving the border with Ukraine. Biden said they're unverified. Are you aware of any evidence this is happening?

MAYNES: Well, you know, Russia, first of all, it's important to point out, has always argued these were military training exercises. And Russia's defense minister this week said the drills would wrap up soon. Today a spokesman said even some troops had completed drills and were already returning to bases. The ministry released videos that showed tanks on the move, although it's a fair question to ask, where to? That's unanswered, as is the scale of the pullback. You know, essentially, this announcement was greeted by NATO and the West as a positive sign but one that needs verification. You know, it's just too early to say how much of a difference it makes against the backdrop of these 100,000 or, as Biden put it today, 150,000 Russian troops in the area.

NADWORNY: Does that number include these Russian troops in Belarus who are ostensibly there for exercises?

MAYNES: It would appear to. There's a 30,000-troop force in Belarus now for joint training exercises. What's interesting, though, is they're supposed to wrap up on February 20. That's Sunday. So it puts a little bit to the test this idea that Russia's Defense Ministry is saying that once drills wrap up, you go home. Do they, in fact, go home? And either way, we've seen Russia's Foreign Ministry present today's partial withdrawal as proof that Western claims of an impending Russian incursion were false, which, of course, is what Russia has been arguing all along.

NADWORNY: Right. And finally, Russia's lower house of Parliament voted to ask Putin to recognize the independence of the separatist republics in east Ukraine. Did the two leaders have anything to say about that? - in just about 30 seconds.

MAYNES: Yeah, they did. You know, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said that the move risked undermining peace efforts in east Ukraine. Putin countered that these Russian lawmakers, as popularly elected officials, were simply reflecting the views of Russian voters. Putin also said without any evidence, he thought that Russian speakers in the Donbas were facing a genocide. But, you know, the hard truth is that the Kremlin, at least so far, has preferred these Russian-backed territories remain part of Ukraine, in part because they give Moscow some leverage over what happens next in the country.

NADWORNY: All right. NPR's Charles Maynes, thanks so much.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.