The Kremlin has denounced as "baseless hysteria" weeks-long US claims that Russia is about to invade Ukraine, as some Russian troops deployed near the Ukrainian border are returning to their permanent bases following the completion of drills.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made the remark in a news briefing in the capital, Moscow, on Tuesday, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin would prefer that Russia and the West calmly discuss each others' concerns and did not want to see misinformation campaigns that further escalated tensions.
Peskov said that Russian troops always return to their permanent bases after exercises but some Western governments were unable to stop inventing stories about a looming war between Russia and Ukraine.
"We have always said that as soon as the exercises come to an end, when their stages end within certain deadlines, the troops always return to their permanent bases," he said. "It is a normal process. As for the gloomy prophecies, you are strongly advised to put these questions to those who author them overseas and who keep reciting mantras about a looming war."
The Kremlin spokesman said Russia had always conducted military drills in the whole of its territory and would continue doing so in the future, stressing, "It is our right to conduct exercises on our territory there we find it expedient, without discussing this with anybody."
Russia's Defense Ministry announced early on Tuesday that some units of the southern and western military districts had completed their exercises near Ukraine and begun to move toward their bases.
Ties between Russia and the US-led NATO military alliance have recently turned acrimonious over Ukraine.
Western countries have been accusing Russia of preparing for an invasion of Ukraine by amassing 100,000 troops and armaments near the border with that country. Moscow has been rejecting the allegations, saying the military build-up is defensive in nature and a response to NATO's increased military activity near Russian borders.
Everything is in place for a new attack on Ukraine: NATO
NATO on Tuesday welcomed what it said were signals that Russia was looking for a peaceful solution to resolve disputes but claimed that there was no indication of any de-escalation on the ground.
"There are signs from Moscow that diplomacy should continue. This gives grounds for cautious optimism. But so far, we have not seen any sign of de-escalation on the ground from the Russian side," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.
"Russia has amassed a fighting force in and around Ukraine unprecedented since the Cold War. Everything is now in place for a new attack. But Russia still has time to step back from the brink, stop preparing for war and start working for a peaceful solution," Stoltenberg claimed, describing the situation as the "most serious security crisis we have faced in Europe for decades."
The US military has put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for deployment to Eastern Europe to bolster the NATO presence in the region. The US has also approved shipments of US-made missiles and other weapons from NATO allies Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to Ukraine.
Back in December last year, Moscow demanded security guarantees from NATO that it would not further expand eastward, closer to Russian borders, and never allow Ukrainian membership. The US and NATO both rejected the demands.
US defense sec. heads to Europe for NATO talks, to visit troops
In another development on Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled to Brussels for talks with NATO allies and to visit US troops in Poland, as Washington continues to hype the allegation that a Russian invasion is imminent.
NATO defense ministers are scheduled to meet on Wednesday and Thursday, and are reportedly expected to set in motion a plan that could establish four multi-national battle groups in Southeastern Europe in response to Russia's military build-up near Ukraine.
Austin is due to meet Polish leaders and will also meet US and Polish forces at Powidz Air Base later this week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has repeatedly criticized the Western states for stoking tensions and called on them to avoid creating "panic" in the face of the Russian troop buildup on the country's border. Zelensky has said the panic-triggering alerts are placing a heavy burden on his country's economy.
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