Moscow talk of de-escalation on Ukraine border met with scepticism

In December, a month after Russia first began building up its military forces on the Ukrainian border, the withdrawal of 10,000 soldiers from the frontline led to a temporary easing of tensions.

Yet within weeks troop numbers were rising again, part of what is now one of the biggest military build-ups in Europe since the end of the cold war — large enough for Washington to warn that Russia had the means to invade Ukraine at any moment.

So analysts and western military planners have reacted with caution to talk emanating from Moscow this week of a de-escalation on the border — with some suggesting the opposite was true and that numbers were increasing.

Russia’s defence ministry said on Tuesday that some units of its southern and western military districts bordering Ukraine had completed drills and would be pulling back to base, a day after Sergei Shoigu, defence minister, said some military drills were wrapping up.

Vladimir Putin spoke on Tuesday of a decision “to partially withdraw forces” from the border region and said he was ready for talks with the west.

Videos released by the Russian defence ministry showed tanks crossing snow-covered fields and being loaded on to railway cars, with the ministry saying the troops would return to their bases “as they always do” after the completion of planned exercises.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, said on Tuesday he viewed the developments with “cautious optimism” but needed to see “a significant and enduring withdrawal”. Yet by Wednesday he had hardened his stance. “We see they have increased the number of troops and more troops are on their way,” Stoltenberg said at the start of a two-day summit of defence ministers of the 30-country military alliance. “We’re prepared for the worst.”

For analysts, December’s temporary withdrawal underscored the dangers of reading too much into drawdowns. “Last year, when they were withdrawing troops, it was as if they accidentally forgot about a couple of armies, leaving them behind,” said Ruslan Leviev of the Conflict Intelligence Team, which uses open sources to monitor Russian military activities.

“Some of the troops actually left for permanent bases, while some of the troops ended up staying on the border. So there’s always the option to . . . turn around again and go back on the attack,” he said.

Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow think-tank, called the withdrawal “open de-escalation”, but also said it did not mean the tensions would necessarily subside.

“It hasn’t solved any of the Russians’ fundamental goals. Ukraine is even more hostile than it was and nobody has met any of Russia’s demands,” he said.

For some analysts and officials, rather than seeing signs of withdrawal on the ground, the opposite was true: some forces went in, some were moved out, but on balance the numbers were rising. This kind of action could continue as Russia seeks to keep the west guessing and maintain pressure on Ukraine, they said.

“I hope my scepticism is proved wrong, but we’ve seen this pattern before, during the build-up that began last year,” said Henry Boyd, military analyst at IISS in London.

Speaking at a meeting with German chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin said a decision had been taken “to partially withdraw forces” following what Moscow claims were exercises involving more than 130,000 troops near the border with Ukraine and in neighbouring Belarus.

But he said future negotiations would hang on the situation on the ground, which could change at any moment — suggesting any drawdowns could be rapidly reversed. “Who can say what the situation will be like. Nobody, for now. And it doesn’t depend only on us,” the Russian president said.

Both the Conflict Intelligence Team and open-source monitors at Rochan Consulting, a military analysis group, noted signs of fresh deployments to the border regions.

“Over the past few days, there was again an influx of videos which showed new equipment arriving to the border with Ukraine, or near the border,” said Konrad Muzyka, Rochan Consulting’s director.

“So we have to verify [Russia’s statements],” Muzyka said. “The most recent troop deployments suggest it is not genuine.”

It was also significant, said Leviev, that the statement about troops returning to their bases did not mention units from the Far Eastern Military District, which have been deployed from locations thousands of miles away.

Their absence “raises doubts about de-escalation intentions”, he said.

The far east units were largely deployed in January as part of joint military exercises Russia is holding with Belarus.

These exercises, which have led to at least 30,000 troops being deployed to Belarus, according to US intelligence reports, are due to finish on February 20. Russian officials have said the troops in Belarus would return once the exercises are over.

Polina Ivanova in Kyiv, Max Seddon in Moscow and John Paul Rathbone in London