Russia’s defense ministry announced on Tuesday it would begin pulling back some troops from areas near the border of Ukraine, a move that suggested Moscow may be seeking to defuse tensions over a crisis in Ukraine that has unsettled Europe and drawn condemnation from the Biden administration.
A spokesman for the ministry said in a statement that large-scale exercises involving land, sea and air units were ongoing, but that troops who had completed such training “will make marches in a combined way to” their garrisons.
The statement offered a measure of hope that Moscow was pulling back from a full-scale invasion of its neighbor, a former Soviet republic. In recent weeks, Russia has massed a formidable force of an estimated 130,000 troops that has nearly encircled Ukraine. The troop deployments have raised alarms in Western governments, with U.S. and NATO officials issuing warnings that an attack is imminent.
The crisis has radiated across European capitals and is the latest flashpoint in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence that NATO expansion eastward is a threat to Moscow. It is unclear what concessions — if any — Putin may have received from European leaders and President Biden, but on Monday Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that NATO membership, despite being written in the country’s constitution, remained a “dream.”
The Russian units “of the Southern and Western military districts, having completed their tasks, have already begun loading onto rail and road transport and will begin moving to their military garrisons today,” said Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov. Russia’s army divides its command into five districts. The Southern and Western districts cover territories neighboring Ukraine.
The Russian Defense Ministry’s announcement follows other encouraging signs from the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Monday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and in a highly choreographed scenetasked his top diplomat to continue negotiations with the West, which had threatened deep economic sanctions and other consequences if Russia were to invade Ukraine.
The Putin-Lavrov meeting and the military spokesman’s statements did not diminish fears in Kyiv or among NATO leaders that war is no longer on the table. Konashenkov said in the same statement that large-scale naval and other military drills were still being conducted. Konashenkov also did not provide many details about the number of troops being withdrawn to their garrisons, but an army statement issued on Tuesday said some of the troops would return to their permanent stations in Dagestan and North Ossetia.
Even so, Western officials and those in Ukraine approached such developments with caution. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the announcement gave “ground for cautious optimism,” but added “we have not seen any sign of de-escalation on ground.”
“What we have seen on the ground, since last spring, is that they are moving forces around,” Stoltenberg told reporters, noting that such movements had not been accompanied by the withdrawal of equipment. “The movement of forces does not represent real de-escalation.”
Ukrainian officials also expressed skepticism about Russia’s intentions.
“When we see the withdrawal, we will believe in de-escalation,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba during a video briefing from Kyiv on Tuesday.
Such apprehension may be justified. Konrad Muzak, director of the Poland-based Rochan consultancy, which analyzes open-source materials, said that reports on social media indicated Russia was moving additional equipment to staging areas in Crimea and Belarus.
“A withdrawal will be a very welcome development, but the most recent history of such troop withdrawals tells us that it’s the opposite,” he said in an interview on Tuesday. “This isn’t a security-building measure. Quite the contrary; this could be a deception measure.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is set to travel on Wednesday to meet with allied and defense ministers across NATO leadership “to discuss Russia’s military buildup in and around Ukraine,” said Press Secretary John Kirby in a Pentagon press briefing.
“We still don’t believe that some final decision [by Russia] has been made,” said Kirby. “We have said for awhile now that military actions can happen any day.” Kirby reiterated President Biden’s message that in the case of a Russian invasion, the United States, which has said that none of its troops would fight in Ukraine, would respond swiftly with severe economic consequences.
Russian officials insisted that Tuesday’s withdrawal represented a defeat of Western governments’ insistence that an invasion was imminent.
“15 February 2022 will go down in history as the day Western war propaganda failed,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on her official channel in the messaging app Telegram.
“Humiliated and destroyed without a single shot fired.”
The military maneuvers come amid intense diplomacy aimed at easing a crisis that could ignite a new Cold War between NATO and Russia. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, fresh off a visit to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Monday, traveled to Moscow on Tuesday for his first meeting with Putin since he took office late last year.
Earlier in the day, Russia’s lower house of parliament — the State Duma — approved a resolution to send Putin a proposal to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions in eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists, as independent republics. The recognition would upend the so-called Minsk Agreement, a 2015 deal that aimed to restore the two regions under Ukraine while granting them special status.
In a press conference following his meeting with Scholz, Putin said the situation in the regions, which are known informally as the Donbass, was “genocide” but that any solution had to come through applying the Minsk Agreement.
He added that although the U.S. and other NATO members have yet to provide a satisfactory answer to Russia’s security demands over NATO’s eastward expansion, there was room to follow the negotiation track.
“Do we want a war or not? Of course not,” said Putin. “That’s why we put forward our proposals for a negotiation process,” he said.
Although the announced troops withdrawals signaled a shift away from military confrontation, the Ukrainian defense ministry and one of the country’s largest banks were hit by a cyberattack on Tuesday evening, according to a statement from Ukraine’s Centre for Strategic Communications.
The State Savings or Oschadbank was struck by a so-called Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, which sends a deluge of requests to a website’s server to prevent legitimate users from accessing it. The defense ministry reported a similar attack.
Netblocks, a group which monitors internet activity, confirmed the loss of connectivity to the Oschadbank.