Putin Promised to Withdraw Troops From Ukraine’s Borders. It Hasn’t Happened Yet.

Open source intelligence researchers and U.S. analysts see little evidence of troops actually pulling back, despite Russia's claims.
​Vladimir Putin speaking in Moscow today.
Vladimir Putin speaking in Moscow today. Photo: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

MOSCOW – The world breathed a sigh of relief on Tuesday as President Vladimir Putin promised a “partial withdrawal” of 100,000-plus Russian troops posing what the U.S. has called an “immediate” threat of invasion to Ukraine.

The only problem was there has been no evidence of troops actually pulling back, besides a video of two units in Crimea posted by a Russian army channel. According to open-source intelligence researchers, Moscow had yet to begin a military de-escalation as of Tuesday evening, and at least one regiment was continuing to move toward the Ukrainian border.

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“When there's a real intention to end everything what's going on and bring troops home, usually we see preparations for their return, because it's a long process,” said Ruslan Leviev of the Moscow-based Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), which has been tracking Russian military movements through social media videos and satellite imagery. “Even after the defence ministry statement today, we don't see any preparations for a withdrawal, so we think this is staged. It's just a pretty picture for the television channels.”

In televised remarks on Tuesday evening, U.S. President Joe Biden said a Russian invasion of Ukraine was still a “distinct possibility.”

“The Russian defence minister reported today that some military units are leaving their positions near Ukraine,” Biden said. “That would be good, but we have not yet verified that. We have not yet verified the Russian military units are returning to their home bases. Indeed, our analysts indicate that they remain very much in a threatening position.”

The first whiff of de-escalation had arrived on Monday evening. Seated at the end of a comically long table due to Putin's strict social distancing rules, defence minister Sergei Shoigu told the president that military exercises in the western military district bordering Ukraine “will be completed in the near future.”

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On Tuesday morning, the Russian military said units from the southern and western military districts “will today begin heading to their military garrisons.” The announcement seemed geared to undercut U.S. warnings of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine, with Biden’s administration reportedly warning European allies that the attack could happen on Wednesday.

“February 15, 2022, will go down in history as the day that Western war propaganda collapsed, disgraced and destroyed without a single shot,” tweeted Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for Russia’s the foreign ministry, on Tuesday morning. Moscow has been claiming that the invasion threat is “fake news,” despite a buildup to the north, south and east of Ukraine involving, according to some estimates, up to 150,000 troops.

In a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Moscow on Tuesday afternoon, Putin said he would continue negotiations with the United States even though Washington had not responded to Russia's concerns about NATO expansion to Ukraine and U.S. weapons in Europe. He denied that Moscow would recognise Russia-backed breakaway statelets in eastern Ukraine and promised a “partial withdrawal” of Russian forces from the border. At the same time, Putin suggested that the drawdown would depend on how the dialogue with the West developed.

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“How will Russia act going forward? According to plan. What will that [plan] depend on? On the real situation on the ground,” he said.

TV Zvezda, a news channel and site owned by the Russian military, posted a ceremonious video, apparently filmed early Tuesday morning, of tanks driving onto flatbed train cars as a brass band played marching music. It also showed tanks crossing a road as soldiers held up a line of cars.

Rob Lee, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia programme who follows Russian military deployments, said he had seen no clear evidence of retreat.

"Still no signs of a drawdown in Belgorod and Bryansk where we've seen the most recent movements near the border," he told VICE World News.

Researchers geolocated the tank movements to two cities in Crimea at least 80 miles from the annexed peninsula's de facto border with Ukraine. Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at the Virginia-based defence think tank CNA, said these units were too far away to be part of an immediate attack anyway.

“Sometimes when the MoD says withdrawal, what you get is redeployment,” he tweeted. “Not seeing other formations withdraw, so I wouldn’t assume anything at this stage.”

For now CIT has not been able to find any evidence on an official railroad database that the tanks shown in the video, which are part of a unit based in Dagestan in southern Russia, have returned home, Leviev said.

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Moreover, at least one tank regiment has kept making its way toward the Ukrainian border, he added. The 423rd motorised rifle regiment, a unit of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles based in the Moscow region, was filmed late last week loading onto a train that, according to the railroad database, departed in the direction of Ukraine. The unit is expected to arrive in the border region of Bryansk Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, Leviev said.

Russia's military buildup near Ukraine, which began last spring but intensified this winter, has been notable not just for its size but also its geographic scale. Anti-aircraft missiles have come from as far as the Khabarovsk region, which is located near the Chinese border more than 5,000 miles away.

These longer deployments will apparently stay in place. And even if units from the districts mentioned by the defence ministry do withdraw, they can quickly redeploy.

“For the picture they can say western and southern district troops are returning home, and since they're not far away they can at any point head back to the border,” Leviev said.

Meanwhile, joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises will continue just to the north of Ukraine. On Saturday, paratroopers will jump over the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus and stage a mock counterattack with artillery and air support, as accredited journalists look on.

Russian political analyst Ivan Preobrazhensky said although it no longer appears war with Ukraine will start on Wednesday, the standoff was hardly over.

“Optimists can celebrate,” he wrote. “For pessimists, I'd offer my prediction of a much longer deadline than this winter, probably this spring or early summer.”