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Russian pullout meets UK scepticism, Ukraine defence website still hacked

16 Feb, 2022
This handout video grab released by the Russian Defence Ministry on February 15 shows Russian tanks leaving for Russia after joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus as part of an inspection of the Union State's Response Force, at a firing range near Brest. AFP/File
This handout video grab released by the Russian Defence Ministry on February 15 shows Russian tanks leaving for Russia after joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus as part of an inspection of the Union State's Response Force, at a firing range near Brest. AFP/File

Russia said more of its forces surrounding Ukraine were withdrawing on Wednesday but Britain joined the United States in saying it had yet to be convinced the pullout was real.

In Ukraine, the defence ministry said its web portal had been hit by an unprecedented cyberattack that was into its second day.

The Russian defence ministry published a video that it said showed tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled artillery units leaving the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Their deployment was part of a huge build-up of Russian forces to the north, east and south of Ukraine since November that had prompted London and Washington to warn in recent days that a Russian invasion looked imminent.

Russia mocked those warnings as hysterical war propaganda when it announced on Tuesday that some units were starting to return to base after completing exercises.

Military analysts say a key indicator of a significant pullback will be whether units from Russia's far east, which are taking part in huge exercises in Belarus this week, return to their bases thousands of miles away.

US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that more than 150,000 Russian troops were still amassed near Ukraine's borders. He said Washington had not yet verified any pullout.

“Our analysts indicate that they remain very much in a threatening position,” he said.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told Times Radio on Wednesday: “We haven't seen any evidence at the moment of that withdrawal.”

Speaking separately to the BBC, he said: “Physical observations that we see show the opposite of some of the recent rhetoric coming out the Kremlin.”

Hacking attack

In Ukraine, the defence ministry said hackers were still bombarding its website and had succeeded in finding vulnerabilities in the programming code.

Although Kyiv did not name who was behind the incident, a statement suggested it was pointing the finger at Russia.

“It is not ruled out that the aggressor used tactics of dirty little tricks because its aggressive plans are not working out on a large scale,” said the Ukrainian Centre for Strategic Communications and Information Security, which is part of the culture ministry.

Russia's Federal Security Service did not immediately reply to a request for comment from Reuters.

“If Russia attacks the United States or our allies through asymmetric means like disruptive cyberattacks against our companies or critical infrastructure, we're prepared to respond,” Biden said in televised remarks from the White House on Tuesday.

Russia has always denied planning to invade Ukraine but has been pressing for a set of security guarantees from the West including a promise that its neighbour Ukraine will never join Nato.

The United States and its allies have rejected that, but say they are willing to talk about arms control and confidence-building measures.

Putin said after meeting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday that the West was ignoring Russia's main demands but Moscow was ready to continue dialogue on security issues.

European Union Council head Charles Michel urged Russia on Wednesday to take tangible steps to de-escalate.

“The choice today is a choice between war and tragic sacrifices that would go along with that war or the courage of a political engagement, the courage of a diplomatic negotiation,” he said.

Oil prices recoup

Oil prices recouped losses on Wednesday after slipping more than three per cent in the previous session, as investors gauged the impact of easing Russia-Ukraine tension against a taut balance of tight global supplies and recovering fuel demand.

Brent traded at $93.90 a barrel by 0722 GMT, up 62 cents, or 0.7pc, having slid 3.3pc overnight after Russia announced a partial pullback of its troops near Ukraine, yet to be verified by the United States.

US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude was at $92.71 a barrel, up 64 cents, or 0.7pc, after the contract ended Tuesday's session down 3.6pc.

Both benchmarks had hit their highest since September 2014 on Monday, with Brent touching $96.78 and WTI reaching $95.82. The price of Brent jumped 50pc in 2021, while WTI soared about 60pc, as a global recovery in demand from the Covid-19 pandemic strained supply.

Beyond the Ukraine tension, the oil market remains tight and prices are still on course for a move towards $100 a barrel, analysts said.

“Technically we could see prices heading back to $90 a barrel on profit-taking, but they will trend higher towards $100 as the economy is getting back on track and more demand is coming through in a tight market,” said Jonathan Barratt, chief investment officer at Probis Group.

While the Ukraine crisis simmered, the US Labour Department reported producer prices increased by the most in eight months in January, a reminder that high inflation could persist through much of this year.

Investors await weekly US oil inventories data from the Energy Information Administration due at 10:30am (1530 GMT) on Wednesday.

US crude and distillates inventories may have fallen by 1.5 million to 1.6m barrels last week, a Reuters poll showed.

Data from the American Petroleum Institute showed a drop in crude, gasoline and distillate stocks last week, according to market sources on Tuesday.