Has Putin pulled military back from Ukraine border?

Color me … skeptical. While Vladimir Putin remains under pressure from the West through limited economic sanctions, his ambitions in eastern Ukraine could hardly be going better. He’s on the verge of pushing the former Soviet republic into the kind of collapse that Russia could use as a pretext for occupation. Why would Putin pull back now?

Still, that’s what Putin himself claims:

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said Wednesday that Russian troops had pulled back from the Ukraine border, and he urged separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone a referendum planned for Sunday.

“We were told constantly about concerns over our troops near the Ukrainian border,” Mr. Putin said after meeting with Didier Burkhalter, the president of Switzerland and current head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “We have pulled them back. Today they are not at the Ukrainian border but in places of regular exercises, at training grounds.”

Russia positioned 40,000 troops on the Ukrainian border soon after protesters in Kiev pushed President Viktor F. Yanukovych from power on Feb. 28. Mr. Putin’s willingness to send Russian forces under cover into Crimea and his subsequent annexation of the peninsula raised fears that he might do the same in southeastern Ukraine.

Reuters calls this a “potential breakthrough”:

Russian President Vladimir Putin called on pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine to postpone a vote on secession just five days before it was to be held, potentially pulling Ukraine back from the brink of dismemberment.

It was the first sign the Kremlin leader has given that he would not endorse a referendum planned for Sunday by pro-Russian rebels seeking independence for two provinces with 6.5 million people and around a third of Ukraine’s industrial output.

In what appeared to be a breakthrough in the worst crisis between East and West since the Cold War, Putin also announced he was pulling Russian troops back from the Ukrainian border. Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops on the frontier, proclaiming the right to invade Ukraine if Russian speakers were threatened.

Putin’s call to postpone the referendum is essentially meaningless. There was no way to conduct a referendum this weekend anyway. In Crimea, the Russians had taken over the civic institutions and imposed their own version of security. That’s not the case in eastern Ukraine; the city of Mariupol has changed hands at least twice in the last 24 hours. The same is true of Putin’s support for the May 25th election, for that matter. Like I wrote earlier, the practical impossibility of holding an election in the middle of a sectarian civil war would sap any credibility from the results. Putin can talk about the election all he wants, but as long as Russian provocateurs continue their work, he knows it will never take place, or at worst never be taken seriously.

That brings us back to the troop withdrawal. That could be significant … if in fact it has happened. Has anyone on the ground verified that the Russian units have returned to their regular positions? So far, all of the news reports on the withdrawal have one source: Vladimir Putin. Even if Putin pulled back, it wouldn’t take much work to redeploy to the border again, and everyone in Ukraine knows it.

Color NATO skeptical, too:

What are Russians saying about this, anyway? Thanks to a new “bloggers law” from Putin, they’re only effectively saying what Putin wants them to say:

Russia has taken another major step toward restricting its once freewheeling Internet, as President Vladimir V. Putin quietly signed a new law requiring popular online voices to register with the government, a measure that lawyers, Internet pioneers and political activists said Tuesday would give the government a much wider ability to track who said what online.

Mr. Putin’s action on Monday, just weeks after he disparaged the Internet as “a special C.I.A. project,” borrowed a page from the restrictive Internet playbooks of many governments around the world that have been steadily smothering online freedoms they once tolerated. …

Widely known as the “bloggers law,” the new Russian measure specifies that any site with more than 3,000 visitors daily will be considered a media outlet akin to a newspaper and be responsible for the accuracy of the information published.

Besides registering, bloggers can no longer remain anonymous online, and organizations that provide platforms for their work such as search engines, social networks and other forums must maintain computer records on Russian soil of everything posted over the previous six months.

“This law will cut the number of critical voices and opposition voices on the Internet,” said Galina Arapova, director of the Mass Media Defense Center and an expert on Russian media law. “The whole package seems quite restrictive and might affect harshly those who disseminate critical information about the state, about authorities, about public figures.”

Putin may not be a credible source — but he wants to make himself the only source in Russia. It looks more and more like Russia is entering a new “pivotal experiment.”

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