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NATO skeptical of further Russian troop withdrawals

February 16, 2022

Moscow said its pullback of forces near Ukraine was continuing for the second day, following the end of military exercises, but Western powers remain skeptical. Follow DW for the latest.

In this photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, Russian armored vehicles are loaded onto railway platforms after the end of military drills in South Russia
Western leaders and analysts have doubted the claims of Russian troop withdrawalsImage: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP/picture alliance

Russia said on Wednesday that it had finished military exercises in the occupied territory of Crimea and was withdrawing troops.

The announcement comes a day after Moscow claimed it had returned an unspecified number of soldiers stationed close to the Ukrainian border back to their bases.

"Units of the Southern Military District, having completed their participation in tactical exercises, are moving to their permanent deployment points," Moscow's Defense Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.

Scenes shown on state television also showed military units, including tanks and artillery, crossing a bridge from Crimea — the Ukrainian peninsula occupied by Russia since 2014 — to the Russian mainland.

Distrust from the West

But observers and Western leaders remain skeptical of Russian claims and have warned that Russia could still invade its southern neighbor.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned at a press conference on Wednesday that "Russia retains the ability of a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine," and expressed skepticism about the mixed messages from Russia. 

"What we see is a very strong Russian military presence at the border with Ukraine, but we also see a message from Moscow that they will give diplomacy a chance," he said.

Smith: No evidence Russia is de-escalating

Stoltenberg also pointed out that the number of Russian forces at the Ukrainian border "continues to increase." He added that in the past, Russia has moved lots of troops and heavy equipment into an area and then withdrawn the soldiers, but not the equipment, leaving the option of a rapid return open.

The sentiment was mirrored by EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday who accused Moscow of sending "conflicting signals."

"NATO has not yet seen signs of any Russian troop reduction" despite Moscow's announcements, she said, but added that "We saw signs of hope yesterday... now deeds have to follow those words." 

US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that US intelligence has yet to verify the claims of previous withdrawals. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told TV channel ABC on Wednesday that "unfortunately there's a difference between what Russia says and what it does," adding that "we continue to see forces, especially forces that would be on the vanguard of any renewed aggression against Ukraine, continuing to be at the border, to amass at the border."

Blinken is expected to take part in the Munich Security Conference this weekend to discuss the situation in Ukraine and the broader region. 

The UK's Defense Secretary Ben Wallace reiterated the doubt over Russian claims on Wednesday morning, telling Times Radio: "We haven't seen any evidence at the moment of that withdrawal."

Speaking by phone with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he had seen "little evidence of Russia disengaging" from its military buildup near the Ukraine border.

"The leaders reiterated states' responsibility to abide by their obligations under the United Nations Charter and to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of UN members," Johnson's office said in a readout of the call.

The call took place on the eve of a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the crisis on Thursday.

Johnson and Guterres "reaffirmed the importance of all parties working in good faith" to implement existing agreements concerning regional security.

"They agreed to continue working closely together to pursue an urgent diplomatic resolution and avert a disastrous military escalation and humanitarian crisis," according to a Downing Street spokeswoman.

Russia signals pause on Donbas recognition

Russian news agency RIA cited Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday saying that the recognition of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions would contravene the Minsk agreements.

The Russian parliament on Tuesday voted to ask Putin to recognize the independence of the two Ukrainian regions where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken slammed the vote on Wednesday, saying any recognition of the two regions would be illegal.

Any move to do so by the Kremlin would undermine Russia's pledged commitment to diplomacy and would "necessitate a swift and firm response from the United States in full coordination with our Allies and partners," Blinken said.

The Kremlin also denied any involvement in a cyberattack that hit websites connected to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry and armed forces on Tuesday.

"We do not know anything. As expected, Ukraine continues blaming Russia for everything," Peskov told reporters.

Investigations into previous cyberattacks targeting Ukrainian infrastructure over the years have repeatedly concluded that Moscow has been behind them.

Bolsonaro visits Moscow

Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro met with the Russian president on Wednesday for talks that Putin described as "thorough and constructive."

Bolsonaro made his first official presidential trip during a period of heightened tensions between Russia and the West.

Washington had called on the Brazilian leader to cancel his trip, but Bolsonaro brushed this off. He justified the visit by focusing on the trade ties between the two countries.

Brazil also reaffirmed its support for Kyiv with the country's foreign minister calling his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kulebo before Bolsonaro's trip.

Bolsonaro and Putin shaking hands at the Kremlin
Bolsonaro agreed to take a Russian PCR test and was thus allowed to sit close to the Russian president unlike some previous visitors to the KremlinImage: Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press Office/TASS/imago images

The Kremlin released a statement after the talks on Wednesday saying that the two leaders "share the opinion that conflicts should be resolved through peaceful and diplomatic means."

Bolsonaro has previously said he admires Putin's "strong man" traits.

Troop pullback 'not really an improvement'

Thomas Wiegold, a journalist specializing in international defense, told DW that the Russian withdrawal amounted to little because the troops in question were already garrisoned near Ukraine.

"Even when those troops are withdrawn, they could be relocated pretty fast, pretty soon," Wiegold said. "We have seen that troops from Russia's Far East have been relocated to Belarus and close to Ukraine. If those troops went home a few thousand kilometers, that would make a difference."

"But, if they are troops based a few hundred kilometers from Ukraine anyway, it's not really an improvement."

Despite Putin's denial that any invasion is planned, Wiegold said Russia could "reserve the right to intervene" to help its citizens. Any Russian decision to recognize the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, he said, could make that prospect more likely.

"If this happens, then of course, Russia considers [itself] to have the not only moral but also legal right to intervene in Ukraine. And this might change things just a bit more for the worse." 

Stefan Meister, head of the International Order and Democracy program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), told DW that Russia's announcements of troop withdrawals "is simply a tactical move."

Russia is seeking to ease some pressure only to apply it again, he said.

"[Russia's] goal is for Germany and France to put pressure on Ukraine to implement the Minsk accords on Russian terms after all, and for the Americans to possibly make concessions that they would not otherwise make," Meister added. 

"Russia is not de-escalating, it is just pretending to de-escalate."

Markets take Putin at his word

Putin said on Tuesday during a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that Moscow does not "want war in Europe." He has repeatedly denied having plans to invade.

Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told German newspaper Die Welt on Wednesday that: "There will be no escalation in the coming week either, or in the week after that, or in the coming month."

The news of withdrawals has seen the rouble rally as investors' fears over possible sanctions are eased.

Wall Street and Asian markets were also up on Wednesday after fears of a conflict in Eastern Europe had triggered heavy losses for several days.

ab/fb (AFP, Reuters, dpa, AP)