Russia Says It’s Withdrawing Some Troops From the Ukraine Border, So Yeah

The claimed withdrawal comes a day before what the U.S. said was the planned date of a full-scale Russian invasion. No one has a clear idea of what will happen next, apart from maybe Vladimir Putin.
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Russian troops arriving in Belarus in January to conduct joint military exercises. Photo: Russian Defence Ministry\TASS via Getty Images

Russia says it has begun withdrawing some of the more than 100,000 troops encircling Ukraine, as its diplomats claimed a victory in the monthslong standoff that threatened the first major conventional war in Europe in over a generation. 

Footage of departing tanks was released Tuesday morning by the Russian defence ministry, while the foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, claimed, “February 15, 2022, will go into history as the day Western war propaganda failed. They have been disgraced and destroyed without a single shot being fired.”

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But the extent of the Russian decision to withdraw remains unclear, and just hours before the announcement, Russian airborne and helicopter units could be seen by commercial and U.S. government satellites mustering their forces in a clear attack posture, according to footage released by the Pentagon. 

Ukrainian officials appeared confident that conflict had been avoided.

"We and our allies have managed to prevent Russia from any further escalation," foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters. "It is already the middle of February, and you see that diplomacy is continuing to work."

For months, NATO and Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia would launch an invasion after President Vladimir Putin issued a series of demands that included promises Ukraine would never join the Western alliance, while ordering the mobilisation of more than 100,000 troops backed by tanks and heavy weapons to the border.

Last week, U.S. officials directly accused Russia of planning an invasion scheduled for Wednesday the 16th of February, an incredibly unusual claim for the specificity of the intelligence and willingness by the Biden administration to declassify it, in a move that was characterised by officials as a way to confront Putin with the US’ superior intelligence capabilities. 

“Too much is made of [the question] will Putin go or not,” said a NATO official in Brussels, who had been briefed on by the U.S. last week and asked not to be identified. “Everyone could see he was willing and ready to go and the Russian army doesn’t have particularly secure comms, so people were listening.”

But Putin also knows perfectly well that at least some Russian military communications are compromised so any analysis becomes, “a game with a game within the game.”

“Putin has a chance to blame the hysterical West and announce he got what he wanted without taking on new sanctions,” said the official. “And maybe it unnerved him that the Americans released the intelligence on him. Or he didn’t care. But it’s impossible to say right now that the crisis has ended.”