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Putin blinks first: Russia pulls back 10,000 troops ahead of crunch talks

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Western leaders are likely to see the move as an end-of-year olive branch by the Russian President, coming as it does at a time of mounting concern at the troop build-up. However, they will also have noted his decision to test a hypersonic missile on Thursday, which was reported by Russia’s Interfax news agency.

The drills were held in several regions near Ukraine, including in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, as well as in the southern Russian regions of Rostov and Kuban.

Russia’s deployment of tens of thousands of troops to the north, east and south of Ukraine has fuelled fears in Kiev and Western capitals that Moscow was planning an attack, and possibly even a full-scale invasion.

Russia denies any such plans, saying it needs pledges from the West – including a promise from NATO not to expand the alliance eastward towards Russian borders – because its own security is threatened by Ukraine’s growing ties with the Western alliance.

Moscow also insisted it was within its rights to deploy its troops on its territory as it sees fit.

Estimates for the number of Russian troops recently moved closer to Ukraine vary from 60,000 to 90,000, with one US intelligence document suggesting that number could be ramped up as high as 175,000.

Satellite images published by US-based Maxar Technologies on Christmas Eve, indicated Russia has continued to build up its forces in Crimea and near Ukraine in recent weeks while pressing the US for talks over security guarantees it is seeking.

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“More than 10,000 military servicemen will march to their permanent deployment from the territory of the combined arms’ area of drills.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s foreign policy adviser Jens Ploetner and Russia’s Ukraine negotiator Dmitry Kozak agreed to meet after a lengthy phone conversation on Thursday, a source said on condition of anonymity on Saturday.

The German government has not made any official comment.

A spokesman for Kozak declined to comment.

There have been multiple phone calls between western leaders and Mr Putin in recent months over Russia’s military build-up on the Ukrainian border and resulting fears of an invasion.

In-person meetings between senior Western and Russian government officials have been few and far between, although US President Joe Biden held talks with President Putin in Geneva last June.

Since taking office this month, Mr Scholz has emphasised the need for dialogue with Russia over its military build-up on the Ukrainian border while joining western allies in backing sanctions should Moscow invade.

Berlin is more sceptical than about the possibility of Russia attacking Ukraine and is keen to de-escalate tensions, two government sources said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

Critics have accused Germany of being beholden to Putin because of its need for Russian gas, pointing to the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between the countries, which bypasses Ukraine, as a key area of concern.

Mr Putin said on Friday that Russia had conducted a test launch of Tsirkon hypersonic missile.

He has lauded the missile as part of a new generation of unrivalled arms systems.



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