Russia has announced that it will begin withdrawing troops from the Ukrainian border after massing more than a reported 100,000 troops in the embattled region. Ukraine, and many other nations, feared Russia intended to launch a full-scale invasion into the nation that saw a Russian military annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, as well as ongoing fighting in Eastern Ukraine between the nation’s government forces and Russian-backed separatists ever since.
“I believe that the goals of the snap inspection have been fully achieved,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Thursday.
“The troops demonstrated the ability to reliably defend the country. In this regard, I have decided to complete the Southern and Western military district reviews.”
Some estimates of the Russian show of force on the Ukrainian border have exceeded 150,000 troops, with at least 20 Russian Navy vessels conducting exercises in the nearby Black Sea. Earlier this week, Russia announced the establishment of no-fly zones over parts of Crimea and the Black Sea, with these areas “declared temporarily dangerous for aircraft flights,” Russia’s Interfax news agency reported on Tuesday.
The United States and Europe have refused to acknowledge Crimea as a Russian territory, despite Putin’s forces solidifying their grip on the region in the years since its annexation. The United States has chosen to continue providing Ukraine military aid, but to date, has refrained from openly threatening Russia about what seemed to be an impending invasion. Instead, the U.S. joined a chorus of international voices condemning Russia’s actions and pressuring for a withdrawal.
For its part, Russia has leaned into their claims that Crimea is simply a part of the Russian state, saying they are free to move their military personnel and hardware around their own territory at will. In keeping with this chosen narrative, Russia has accused NATO nations in the area of acting in a provocative manner, seemingly responding to what Russia considers to be little more than a logistical exercise. Or at least, that’s the image Russia wants to convey to the world.
As is often the case when the international community responds to Russian aggression, Kremlin officials have claimed the role of the victim. On Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said nations worried about their sudden massing of troops on the border of embattled Ukraine part of a “mass anti-Russian psychosis.”
What remains to be seen, however, is just how thorough this withdrawal will actually be. Russia holds large-scale military exercises at the far reaches of its territory on an annual basis (each year, the focus is on one region like Zapad, for West, or Vostok, meaning East). In recent large-scale Zapad drills in Belarus, abutting NATO nations Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, Russia amassed large forces and drew both headlines and international condemnation. At the conclusion of these drills, Russian forces return to their duty stations around the nation, reducing tensions. However, Russia has been accused of using these large troop movements as a means to hide the relocation of large military equipment. After the troops withdraw, they leave equipment, vehicles, and weapon systems behind that continue to amass on NATO’s borders, making a rapid buildup of forces easier with each passing exercise.
It seems possible, if not likely, that Russia may have used this buildup to do the same–moving equipment and vehicles to the region that will ultimately support Russian separatist forces moving forward. Were Russia to simply move these supplies to the region, international attention would be on that, but by hiding it behind a more intimidating massing of troops, the equipment can be moved with far less scrutiny.
Russian forces are expected to begin their withdrawal on Friday.