Russia Keeps West Guessing on Its Ukraine Intentions

Russia says it is withdrawing some of its forces from areas close to the Ukrainian border after completing military drills, mocking Western intelligence agencies for naming February 16 as the date a Russian invasion of its neighbor would start.

And the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and his senior aides say diplomacy is winning. “We and our allies have managed to prevent Russia from any further escalation. Diplomacy is continuing to work,” tweeted Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, as news broke of the claimed partial withdrawal of Russian forces.

Although Kuleba cautioned: “On Russian statements regarding withdrawal of some forces from the Ukrainian border. We in Ukraine have a rule: we don’t believe what we hear, we believe what we see. If a real withdrawal follows these statements, we will believe in the beginning of a real de-escalation.”

So, has war been averted?  Or is this a feint?   

Russia has denied it has been planning another attack on Ukraine and has accused Western leaders of whipping up “hysteria.” Kremlin-directed media have been telling their domestic Russian audiences that NATO has been fomenting alarmism. “February 15, 2022, will go down in history as the day when Western war propaganda failed,” Maria Zakharova, the combative spokesperson of the Russian foreign ministry said on social media. 

“They were humiliated and defeated without a single shot,” she added. 

But there are other possible interpretations to the announcement of a partial troop withdrawal, say Western leaders and officials. While welcoming talk of de-escalation, they fear this is just a continuation of the Kremlin’s strategy of hybrid warfare, part of an effort to keep opponents wrong-footed and guessing at Russian intentions while at the same time wearing them down. 

Cautious optimism

Despite Russia’s defense ministry posting video of tanks, infantry combat vehicles and self-propelled artillery systems being loaded onto trains, NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday that evidence of a withdrawal could not yet be seen on the ground, though he expressed qualified optimism. 

Britain’s Boris Johnson was also cautious Tuesday about taking the Russian withdrawal statement at face value. 

There are signs of a “diplomatic opening” to resolve the Ukraine crisis, but there are also “mixed signals,” he said. Johnson added that the “intelligence that we are seeing today is still not encouraging,” citing the building of Russian field hospitals near to the border with Ukraine in Belarus, a Russian ally. 

That could only be “construed as preparation for an invasion,” Britain’s leader told broadcasters following a meeting with his top defense and intelligence officials. “I think what everybody needs to see is a program of de-escalation.”

He added: “We think there is an avenue for diplomacy, we’ve seen some positive signs from conversations between Mr. Ushakov (Putin’s foreign policy adviser) and his American counterpart, between Sergey Lavrov (Russia’s foreign minister) and others. If that’s correct, then let’s build on that.”

Independent military observers are also holding off judging the importance of the claimed Russian military withdrawal. The Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a group of independent Russian researchers, says it has only observed military movements toward and not away from Ukraine. 

Diplomacy

Tuesday’s drama played out against the backdrop of further diplomatic talks in Moscow, where German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met with President Putin after spending Monday in talks in Kyiv with Zelenskiy. 

In Kyiv, Scholz said the issue of NATO membership for Ukraine “is practically not on the agenda.” A key Russian demand is that NATO never admit Ukraine as a member, something NATO has been reluctant to do as it would breach the Western alliance’s traditional open-door policy. Zelenskiy also suggested that while Ukraine still would like to join, NATO membership may be nothing more than a “dream.” 

Were those remarks enough to prompt the partial withdrawal announcement? As the talks between the German chancellor and Ukraine’s leader unfolded in Kyiv, the Kremlin filmed Putin holding discussions with his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who urged him to continue with diplomacy, suggesting to him there’s a chance of success and that some Russian demands might be met.

Ukrainian officials have long suspected that Putin’s strategy is more about trying to wear the West down rather than gamble by launching an invasion of Ukraine that would likely mire Russia in a long counter-insurgency war. Zelenskiy and his aides have been much more cautious about predicting an invasion, and Monday the Ukrainian leader appeared to mock Western warnings about a firm date for an assault. 

Marek Menkiszak of the Center for Eastern Studies, a state think tank based in Warsaw, agrees with Kyiv’s view. “There will be no invasion on 2/16 or later,” he tweeted Tuesday. He reckons Putin will continue to try to scare the West and seek to obtain security concessions but offer nothing in exchange. “Invasion means huge costs and dubious profits,” he added.  

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