Ukraine began a tense countdown Monday to weekend elections as Russian President Vladimir Putin said troops deployed near the border with restive eastern Ukraine have been ordered home.
Putin previously claimed that some 40,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border had been withdrawn, but the United States and NATO insisted they saw no signs of that. Putin’s office issued a statement Monday morning saying the troops involved in “routine spring” exercises in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions have been ordered back to their barracks.
Just like two weeks ago when Putin promised a withdrawal, NATO is seeing little evidence of one:
The troops were on a routine exercise that has now come to an end, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday.
The withdrawal has started, but could take some time to finish, Peskov said.
NATO said Monday that it has not seen any substantial change to the distribution of Russian troops along the Ukraine border.
The Associated Press reports that these orders were more specific than those from two weeks ago:
Putin specifically ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to pull back forces involved in “planned spring” drills in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to their home bases, the Kremlin said. The order appears to go further than a similar statement by the Russian leader two weeks ago that troops were being pulled back from the border to shooting ranges.
The three regions border Ukraine and the withdrawal of troops deployed there to other Russian provinces would signal a genuine attempt by Moscow to de-escalate the worst crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War. It also would be easily verifiable by Western intelligence.
The West said they saw no sign of a pullout after Putin’s earlier claim of a withdrawal and NATO on Monday said it didn’t see any immediate movements to validate the latest assertions.
The Kremlin statement didn’t say how many troops would be pulled out from the three regions or specify how quick the withdrawal would be.
It takes some time for a normal withdrawal to take place, so this could be on the level. On the other hand, nothing Putin has done or said over the last three months gives any observer reason to trust him. Even a real withdrawal may only be partial, and perhaps only nominal.
However, even a nominal withdrawal may be enough to worry the pro-Russia separatists Putin stirred up in eastern Ukraine. The armed militias have pledged to block a national vote to replace the interim government in Kyiv, set to take place in six days, and the presence of the Russian military on the border had to give them confidence that Putin would intervene if the Ukrainian military cracked down ahead of the May 25 election. Putin could respond fairly quickly even with a demobilized border, but Ukraine would have at least a window of opportunity to moot a Russian response. Having Russian troops moving in the opposite direction this week — assuming they actually withdraw at all — cannot help but damage morale among those militias aligning themselves with Moscow.
Don’t expect much of a withdrawal, therefore, until after May 25th, if at all. I’d chalk this up to the same kind of phantom maneuver seen two weeks ago, where Putin orders troops to move and they stay put instead. Still, the fact that Putin has had to offer up this public-relations concession twice shows that international pressure has not been completely ineffective, even if it has clearly not been anywhere effective enough.