Russia pulling out of Ukraine?

There’s plenty of reason for skepticism over the cease-fire reached regarding eastern Ukraine, but one would imagine that Petro Poroshenko would be among the most skeptical of Russian intentions. Poroshenko and the government in Kyiv had long alleged that regular Russian forces had crossed the border weeks ago to bolster the collapsing rebels near Donetsk and Luhansk, and had recently began an offensive to reach Mariupol. Today, though, Poroshenko announced that most of those Russian troops had pulled out of Ukraine in the last few days — up to 70% of them:

Ukraine’s president said on Wednesday Russia had removed the bulk of its forces from his country, raising hopes for a peace drive now underway after five months of conflict in which more than 3,000 people have been killed. …

“According to the latest information I have received from our intelligence, 70 percent of Russian troops have been moved back across the border,” Poroshenko said. “This further strengthens our hope that the peace initiatives have good prospects.”

However, Poroshenko said the ceasefire was not proving easy to maintain because “terrorists” were constantly trying to provoke Kiev’s forces.

The “terrorists” may be rebels attempting to keep Russia from retreating. Moscow may not need much of a provocation, either. Yesterday, Sergei Lavrov accused Ukraine of building up forces for an attack on Donetsk, and multiple reports of artillery fire put the truce into serious question:

Nevertheless, Poroshenko plans to move forward with his obligations under the cease-fire. Next week, he will introduce a measure granting the restive eastern regions greater autonomy, but insisted that Ukraine would maintain its sovereignty:

Ukraine’s president promised Wednesday to introduce a bill to parliament as early as next week that would offer greater autonomy to rebellious regions in the pro-Russia east, where separatists have been battling government troops for almost five months.

But Petro Poroshenko said the regions would remain part of Ukraine and rejected the idea of federalization, something both Russia and pro-Moscow separatists have continued to push for even after a cease-fire agreement took effect Friday.

The agreement, which was reached in Belarus, “envisages the restoration and preservation of Ukrainian sovereignty over the entire territory of Donbas, including the part that is temporarily under control of the rebels,” Poroshenko said during a televised Cabinet meeting. “Ukraine has made no concessions with regards to its territorial integrity.”

Poroshenko went to Mariupol yesterday to show solidarity with the strategic city, which held out against the Russian threat to Ukrainian sovereignty there. The Ukrainian president emphasized the need to “win the peace,” and said that his priority was the removal of foreign forces from Ukraine so that political issues could be settled quickly. Without foreign troops in Ukraine, Poroshenko said in English, the issues could get resolved in a week. “I think,” Poroshenko concluded, “that the peace initiative is bringing us to this result.”

Hopefully, the retreat of Russia from Ukraine is real and will continue. With Lavrov looking for an excuse to return and the rebels perhaps desperate to provide it, I wouldn’t count on it.

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