Putin may have pulled back from Ukraine border but he did not back down, experts warn

Launcher of short-range ballistic missile system Iskander spotted in Voronezh, Russia amid the build-up of the Russian troops near the Ukrainian border (late March - early April 2021). Photo via Twitter/CITeam_en 

Russian Aggression

On 22 April, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu issued an order to pull back troops deployed to the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula (southern Ukraine), near the occupied eastern regions, and near Ukraine’s northeastern border south of the Russian city of Voronezh.

However, the announced troop pullback didn’t convince experts of Russia’s peaceful intentions: not everything is being pulled back, Russia has rehearsed many tricks, and previous announced withdrawals were covers for invasions.

Announcing withdrawal

On 22 April in occupied Crimea, Sergei Shoigu announced the drawdown of the exercise – the massive military build-up on Ukrainian borders was officially a snap test of combat readiness – and assured that the withdrawal of the troops was going to start on 23 April to be completed by 1 May, saying that

“I believe that the objectives of the surprise check have been fully achieved. The troops have demonstrated the ability to ensure the reliable defense of the country. In this regard, I have made a decision to complete verification activities in the Southern and Western military districts.”

The two mentioned military districts are located in European Russia with occupied Crimea ascribed to the Southern District. The buildup, however, also involved military units from the Central military district that stretches behind the Ural mountains far into Siberia.

Shoigu said that the personnel of the 58th Army of the Southern Military District, the 41st Army of the Central Military District, the 7th, 76th Airborne Assault, and 98th Airborne Divisions of the airborne troops are ordered to return to their permanent bases, according to TASS.

He specifically mentioned that the equipment of the 41st would remain at the Pirogovo military range near Voronezh, although he didn’t clear up whether the hardware of other units would be brought back together with military personnel that is set to be withdrawn.

Michael Kofman, Senior Research Scientist at CNA Corporation, points out that Russia’s 56th Guards Air Assault Brigade wasn’t on Shoigu’s list, so it may “stay in Crimea and convert into a regiment there as planned.”

Furthermore, Shoigu’s order mentions only army units and it doesn’t apply to aviation concentrated in Crimea amid the build-up and the navy vessels that were transferred from the Caspian Sea to Azov and Black sea region via the Volga-Don canal.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, however, was quick to welcome the announced pullback in his tweet on the same 22 April,

https://twitter.com/ZelenskyyUa/status/1385235227212136449

Meanwhile, in a political TV show the same evening, Andrii Yermak, head of Zelenskyy’s office, called Russia’s decision to withdraw its troops “the result of strong support from Western countries and the work of President and his team.”

Experts skeptical

Military expert Roman Kulik, reserve officer of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, met Shoigu’s announcement with skepticism,

“[The words] that they are withdrawing their troops this time may be a mere statement for the US and the EU to show that they are canceling the escalation. Some of the troops may remain.”

The Russian independent group Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) says that it is too early to stop worrying after Shoigu’s order to withdraw troops. First, according to the order, the equipment of the 41st army that arrived from Siberia is going to remain in the camp near Voronezh up until Zapad-2021 military exercises in September.

“With the vehicles already in place [including tanks and multiple launch-rocket systems], transferring just the personnel back to Voronezh would take days, not weeks,” according to CIT.

Another one of CIT’s points is that the initial deployment of the hardware and military personnel took about a month. This makes Shoigu promise to complete the pullout in a week, by 1 May, unrealistic given the same amount of logistic operations needed. Thus, the group doesn’t exclude the possibility of a Russian further deployment in the Russian-occupied eastern areas of Ukraine. However, CIT believes that a large full-scale invasion would require moving more troops to the border.

The Washington based thinktank CSIS in addition to mentioning points that the 41st Army’s equipment and weapons would stay near Voronezh, also notes that all troops should remain “in a state of readiness for an immediate response in case of the unfavorable development,” according to Shoigu which he said referring to NATO’s DEFENDER-21 exercises.

Satellite imagery showing the military equipment deployed in Pogonovo, a military training ground 17 kilometers south of Voronezh, 250 km away from Ukraine’s border.

“The announced drawdown indicates a significant de-escalation. However, until Russian troops actually leave Pogonovo, the situation will remain tense,” CSIS suggests.

The Russian field commander Igor Girkin, who had started armed hostilities in the Donbas back in 2014 yet was stripped of power and returned to Russia later the same year, found Shoigu’s announcement bewildering and feared that Putin may be going to plan “surrendering the Donbas,”

“I don’t understand how it was possible to pull troops to the borders in such a great amount and then do nothing, what for? It looks weird and stupid for one simple reason as Putin’s respected Ukrainian partners (i.e. the Ukrainian leadership, – Ed.) won’t stop provocations and will not stop preparing for war,” he said, parrotting the Russian propaganda narrative that the build-up was a response to ostensible Ukrainian preparations for liberating its Russian-occupied territories.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian political scientist Viktor Ukolov suggested that one of two conflicting reasons could have caused Putin’s decision to start the pullback,

“The first version is that he has given in under pressure from the West or Mr. Zelenskyy. And the second version is that Putin has received some concessions. That is, he achieved his goals. Blackmail succeeded, and as a result of successful blackmail, he tactically retreated. We don’t know what kind of blackmail…,” he said on Priamyy TV channel.

On 24 April, Daleep Singh, a top White House international economic aide, said commenting on the announced Russian withdrawal of its troops from the Ukrainian border,

“The results so far have been pretty close to what we had hoped for,” believing that the US sanctions against Russia that worked and the signal that the US had the capacity to “impose far greater costs if Russia continued or escalated its behavior.”

Meanwhile, in his comment to DW, Kurt Volker, former Special US Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, wasn’t too optimistic and said that the fact that the Russian military would return to the very same bases from which they arrived has yet to be verified.

Michael Kofman of CNA is skeptical as well,

“We still have to see this withdrawal happen over the coming weeks, even as there are indicators that some units are on the move from Eastern Military District in Russia to this region, i.e. the final force posture that they intend to maintain after April is unclear,” he wrote on Twitter.

The next two weeks will show whether Russia actually begins to redeploy, Kofman says, but “it also appears that some elements will remain.” 

Peter Dickinson, UkraineAlert Editor at Atlantic Council, points out that Russia doesn’t seek peace with an independent Ukraine, but it does respect strength and that only massively upgraded Ukraine’s defensive capabilities can deter Russia,

“Putin may have ordered his reinforcements to withdraw for the time being, but at present there is nothing to stop him repeating these scare tactics whenever necessary,” he wrote.

Defense and security consultant Glen Grant warned that reports of Putin backing down need to be ignored, reminding of Putin’s achievements with the troop maneuvers. He notes that:

  • the blockade of the Azov Sea remains in place;
  • the USA were intimidated into removing two ships from the Black Sea and into giving Putin a summit with Biden. The latter is earmarked for June;
  • Russia had conducted a massive military buildup in the Arctic whilst all eyes were elsewhere;
  • Russia had rehearsed various military systems for a major mobilization: the railway system, battalion groups that were deployed at the front line, heavy-lift aircraft and parachute forces, as well as a new marine landing fleet;
  • Russia had observed the Ukrainian deployment and training, as well as the strength of resolve of the political class in Ukraine.

“Much of this deployment remains in place ready to be reactivated quickly and will be improved by lessons learned. What have we learned in Ukraine from all this and what will WE both in Ukraine and the West change quickly to be better prepared for the next round?” the security consultant asks.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also reminded of the fact that the Russo-Ukrainian war is far from being over,

“If Russia really pulls back from the border with Ukraine the enormous military force it has deployed there, this will already ease tensions. But we need to remember that this step would put an end neither to the current escalation, nor to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia in general.”

Current build-up

Russian military build-up near Ukrainian borders and in Crimea. The markers show the locations of late March – early April videos showing the convoys of Russian heavy equipment on move. Source.

The military build-up that started in mid-March and lasted until late April raised fears of further Russian invasion in the Ukrainian territory as it was strikingly similar to one in summer 2014 near the eastern borders of Ukraine which was followed by the invasion of the Russian regular troops to support its irregular armed formations that were losing to the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. However, the current concentration of troops has been lacking one detail: Russia unfolded its field camps not directly on borders but more than a hundred kilometers away now.

Initially unnoticed, the mass transfer of the Russian troops to Ukrainian borders surfaced in the press after the Russian social media users started posting videos of multiple military convoys transported by train and moving on their own.

The Russian defense minister didn’t find any better explanation than to call the build-up a snap test of combat readiness a few weeks into the ongoing deployment. Meanwhile, the closest regular large-scale military drills, “Zapad-2021,” are planned only for 10-16 September.

The Russian propaganda machine went full-on in parallel with the mass transfer of the troops, bringing back its “fascist Ukraine” narratives, blaming Ukraine for the escalation in the Donbas frontlines that was actually orchestrated by the Russian forces, and for non-existent intentions to return the Russian-occupied regions by force.

NATO prepares to attack, says Kremlin propaganda amid record Russian troop buildup at Ukraine border

Meanwhile, the Russian leadership once again attempted to blackmail Ukraine into accepting the Russian demands regarding Kyiv’s direct negotiations with Russian occupation administrations of the self-proclaimed statelets of Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics.” This would mean Ukraine’s de-facto recognition of the puppet states.

Russian-announced withdrawal doesn’t necessarily mean withdrawal

In July 2008, Russia held large-scale military drills “Kavkaz-2008” north of the Greater Caucasus mountain range that separates Russia from Georgia. The troops were meant to return to their permanent bases, but the next month shortly after the end of the drills, the Russian ground forces that took part in the maneuvers invaded Georgia on 7 August 2008, supported by aviation and the Black Sea fleet.

In spring 2014, Russia had a series of drills near Ukrainian borders. In mid-May 2014 Putin announced the withdrawal of troops involved in military games. Weeks later, on 11 July 2014, Russia conducted a rocket attack on a Ukrainian military camp near the village of Zelenopillia in Luhansk Oblast a few kilometers away from the border, killing 37 and wounding over 100 Ukrainian soldiers.

It was one of the multiple trans-border artillery and rocket attacks on Ukrainian troops from the Russian territory that lasted the whole summer of 2014 into early September, preparing and then supporting the Russian invasion.

Later that year, Putin once again announced the withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian borders in October 2014 after Russia’s first invasion of the Donbas region that was formally called drills, however, only months later in early 2015, Russia unleashed its second offensive in Ukraine’s Donbas targeting the key railway hub of the region, Debaltseve.

Such a massive transfer of military equipment is a good cover not only for possible invasions but also for leaving the equipment in the border areas after partial withdrawal to reinforce combat-ready military units there. This is what happened in 2017 after Russia’s previous lesser build-up on Ukrainian borders, after which at least one camp remained with some 250 Russian tanks left behind at a military base some 20 kilometers away from the Ukrainian border.

It is too early to make conclusions. Yet, if the March-April massive Russian military build-up doesn’t mean an imminent large-scale invasion, then it was not only a Kremlin test for Biden’s administration but also a way to hide in plain sight the further reinforcement of the Russian military units stationed at Ukrainian borders.

The Kremlin hardly expects Ukraine to invade Russia any time soon, yet building up Russia’s permanent military presence on Ukraine’s borders gives the Kremlin possibilities to exert more political pressure on Ukraine and the capability to unfold an offensive operation in a shorter period of time in the future.

Further reading:

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