Vladimir Putin says today that Russia is withdrawing its forces from the Ukrainian border:
“We were told constantly about concerns over our troops near the Ukrainian border,” Mr. Putin said after meeting with Didier Burkhalter, the president of Switzerland and current head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “We have pulled them back. Today they are not at the Ukrainian border but in places of regular exercises, at training grounds.”
I’m not sure this is really all that significant a development, since the Russian government has maintained since March that the troops are only in the region for routine military exercises. The Pentagon counters that it has seen no evidence of these exercises taking place.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also said last week that the troops had been ordered to “returned to barracks” after “large-scale exercises.” NATO countered that it had seen no evidence of this happening.
Putin also told Angela Merkel that he had ordered a partial withdraw at the end of March. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said troops were withdrawing on April 3.
When NATO released satellite photos in April purportedly showing a military buildup including fighter jets, tanks, and artillery, the Russian army claimed they were photos from drills held last year. NATO then countered with more before-and-after photos.
In other words, given that the existence of these troops, where exactly they’re located, and what they’re doing have been matters of dispute throughout this crisis, Putin’s latest assurance may not mean very much. It would also seem to contradict earlier statements suggesting that the military units in the area had already returned to base or hadn’t been there in the first place, though all of these statements have been somewhat ambiguously worded.
I’m not sure how much the location and composition of these troops will really matter. Russian may not need to actually use them—at least in the short term—given that pro-Russian separatists likely assisted by Russian special operations forces seem to be doing a perfectly fine job resisting Ukrainian government efforts to regain control over the country’s southeast. Today, government forces briefly recaptured the city hall in the southern port of Mariupol but it was quickly retaken by separatists.