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After talks with Ukraine's president, Germany's chancellor meets with Putin

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

What will it take to persuade President Vladimir Putin to pull back Russian troops currently massed around Ukraine? German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met with Putin in Moscow today in yet another diplomatic push to avert a potential Russian invasion that the West says could happen at any moment. Meanwhile, Russia's Ministry of Defense says some forces are pulling back from Ukraine's border, though there's been no confirmation of that from independent sources. Joining us on the latest is NPR's Charles Maynes from Moscow. Good morning.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Morning.

FADEL: So throughout this crisis, Charles, Russia has insisted it has no plans to attack Ukraine, while using this military buildup to issue security demands. Is there any sense of where Putin or Kremlin thinking is at this point?

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, it's clear the fundamental dynamics haven't changed for them. Tens of thousands of Russian troops remain stationed around Ukraine, and the Kremlin's demands that NATO pull back from Eastern Europe and bar Ukraine from membership in the alliance are definitely still there, as is Russian frustration that these demands haven't been met. Now, there have been some signals recently that Moscow is open to at least some more diplomacy, which is important given the warnings coming out of Washington of an imminent attack by Russia. Today, President Putin endorsed the idea of more dialogue in his own way during a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Let's listen in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here Putin's saying, who among us can say what will happen next? No one. But that it didn't depend just on Russia's actions. And Putin said Russia was still striving to overcome differences over these security concerns with the West by diplomatic means. You know, meanwhile, Russia's defense minister announced this week that Russian military exercises - and that's how Moscow always characterizes this buildup near Ukraine, as exercises - that that would be ending soon. Today, we heard from the spokesman at the ministry who said troops in Crimea and on Russia's western border had completed drills and would be heading back to their home bases. But, of course, all this needs to be verified, as does just how many troops are involved. Moreover, the Kremlin spokesman today suggested Russia may hold these drills again, arguing this is Russian territory, and Russia can do what it wants on it.

FADEL: So you mentioned Putin's comments alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who's in Moscow. What came out of those talks?

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, Scholz has been roundly criticized in the media and by some in the West for essentially sitting out of the Ukraine crisis - for example, not really engaging diplomatically until recently and also even offering hospital beds and helmets to Ukraine while the U.S. and other partners were sending weapons. But today, you know, in Moscow Scholz seemed to show that he was onboard with his Western allies. He stressed the importance of dialogue, saying that for European security, it meant - had to be built with Russia, not against it. He also said he felt that diplomatic options were far from exhausted and warned that a conflict would be a European tragedy for which Russia, too, would pay costs - hint there to Western sanctions.

Now, with Germany, the question has always been how far Scholz is really willing to go on that front. You know, would he, for example, be willing to kill Nord Stream 2? This is the not-yet-operational pipeline deal that exports Russian gas to Germany. Scholz seemed to imply he might but said the whole reason he was in Moscow was so it wouldn't come to that. You know, but clearly, Putin knows this is a divisive issue among allies in the West. Putin noted that average Germans must be thrilled that their gas prices are much lower than elsewhere in Europe.

FADEL: Russia's lower house of Parliament voted today to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to recognize the independence of these separatist republics in the Donbas and east Ukraine. Did the two leaders have anything to say about that?

MAYNES: Yeah, we heard from Putin who said these lawmakers, as publicly elected officials, were expressing the views of a majority of Russians who were concerned about Russian speakers in east Ukraine. But really, it comes down to - I think this is more of a bargaining tactic.

FADEL: OK.

MAYNES: The truth is that Russia hasn't done much to keep - really, to recognize these territories, at least not yet.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you.

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