Russia’s Massive Military Buildup Near Ukraine Remains In Place Despite Withdrawal Claims (Updated)

Russian authorities say they have begun to withdraw some of the forces that are currently deployed in areas opposite the country’s borders with Ukraine. Those movements, so far, appear to be very limited and a massive amount of firepower remains in place for a possible incursion into Ukrainian territory, which U.S. officials have warned could come within hours. Separately, Russia’s parliament has voted to press the country’s President Vladimir Putin to recognize the independence of two breakaway regions of Ukraine, where the Russian leader has now claimed, without evidence, that a genocide is occurring.

Russia’s Southern Military District’s press office announced earlier today that exercises on the Crimean Peninsula, which the Kremlin seized from Ukraine in 2014, had concluded and that the units involved were heading back to their garrisons. The Russian Ministry of Defense said that units from the Western Military District that had deployed there were also leaving. The Russian Ministry of Defense subsequently released video footage, seen below, showing personnel loading vehicles onto trains to substantiate these claims.

Since last Fall, Russian forces have steadily poured into various areas near the country’s borders with Ukraine, including in Crimea, as well as in neighboring Belarus. These deployments have included more than half of Russia’s battalion tactical groups, its primary ground combat formations, as well as many aircraft and a significant number of warships

The Kremlin has insisted that these movements are simply for exercises, but U.S. government officials and others have pointed out from the beginning that this would be an ideal cover for moving forces into position in preparation for a new invasion of Ukraine. Since 2014, Ukrainian forces have been engaged in a relatively low-level conflict with Russian forces and Kremlin-backed “separatist” proxies in the country’s eastern Donbas region.

On the face of it, the Russian withdrawals today would seem to be in line with remarks that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made yesterday during a meeting with Putin. Shoigu had said that various exercises in areas near Ukraine were either ending or about to end, after which forces would return to their home stations.

The Russian government has, unsurprisingly, touted these movements as evidence that foreign powers have had overblown reactions to its massive military buildup around Ukraine and that reports of an impending invasion are false. Various news outlets, especially in the United States, have reported that a new Russian military intervention against Ukraine could come at any time now, with some citing anonymous U.S. officials as saying that such an operation might kick off as soon as tomorrow.

“February 15, 2022, will go down in history as the day Western war propaganda failed. Humiliated and destroyed without a single shot fired,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said earlier today.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said today that the withdrawals were going “according to plan” no matter “who thinks what and who gets hysterical about it, [and] who is deploying real informational terrorism.”

At the same time, this would not be the first time the Kremlin has announced a major withdrawal only for significant forces to remain deployed, or for its force position to remain effectively unchanged. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced a similar drawdown after buildup near Ukraine in the Spring of 2021, only for it to become apparent that not all of the units involved were heading home and that significant stockpiles of materiel had been left in place for future contingencies. In 2017, Putin also declared that Russia had achieved total victory against anti-regime forces in Syria, which was to be followed by a major reduction in Russian personnel in that country that never came.

Beyond that, at least some of the units that Russian officials say are “withdrawing” now are based in Crimea, meaning that even if they return to their bases as expected, they will still be in close proximity to Ukraine as Crimea is an annexed portion of that country. Satellite imagery, as well as videos and images taken by individuals on the ground, show that a significant number of additional forces, including dozens of gunship and transport helicopters, are forward-deployed to established bases on the Peninsula, at least as of this past weekend, as well. 

There is still no indication that Russia has begun to draw down the extensive array of forces it has otherwise positioned around Ukraine. In fact, some publicly available satellite imagery shows signs that Russian forces may have departed certain assembly areas, which are the kinds of movements that reportedly in part prompted the U.S. government yesterday to assess that some units were moving into “attack positions.”

“All I could say is that we’ll have to verify that and take a look,” U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith said in response to questions about the apparent withdrawals.

“So far, we have not seen any de-escalation on the ground, not seen any signs of reduced Russian military presence on the borders of Ukraine,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said today. “You may remember, in late December, there were some similar claims that came out of Moscow that they were de-escalating and in fact, facts on the ground did not support that claim.”

“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,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter. “If a real withdrawal follows these statements, we will believe in the beginning of a real de-escalation.”

Even if evidence grows that the Kremlin is indeed moving away from plans to launch a broad, large-scale intervention into Ukraine in the near term, there have been other concerning events just today. Russia’s Duma, the country’s parliament, voted to press Putin to formally recognize the independence of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, also referred to by the abbreviations DNR and LNR, the two “separatist” breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas. Furthermore, Russian parliamentarians chose to adopt a much harder-line measure on the topic put forward by the country’s Communist Party, rather than one that would’ve called for consultations with the Foreign Minister that was put forward by Putin’s own United Russia party. Russia’s Communist Party notably sits in the Duma in opposition to United Russia.

Putin, speaking today alongside visiting Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz, seemed to indicate that was he was not immediately inclined to formally recognize this appeal, from the Duma, which is non-binding anyway. The Russian President reiterated the Russian government’s public position that it is still seeking a diplomatic resolution to that issue through an international mechanism known as the Minsk Protocol. 

However, Putain also suggested that the Kremlin could still wield the situation in Donbas as an implicit threat again the government in Kyiv. He described what has been happening to the people of Donetsk and Luhansk as a “genocide,” though he did not elaborate or provide any hard evidence to support that assertion. That remark was notably in response to German Chancellor Scholz rebuffing the Russian President’s framing of NATO’s military intervention against Serbia in 1999 as an act of unbridled Western aggression, which is a long-standing Kremlin position. Scholz pointed out that NATO had acted in response to a “mass murder,” referring to the Serbian government’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.

Whether or not a “genocide” is actually occurring in Donbas, Putin’s remarks alongside Scholz certainly present a possibility that the Kremlin could use such a claim as a pretext for a new military intervention. The Russian government recognizing the DNR and the LNR as independent countries would provide further justification to rush to their defense. Perhaps more importantly, authorities in DNR and LNR claim significant amounts of territory that is currently still under Ukrainian control, raising the question of whether Russian authorities might then launch military action in the future in order to secure those areas. 

The Kremlin has not stopped its covert and clandestine efforts to destabilize the government in Kyiv, either. Though it is currently unclear who might be responsible, websites associated with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, as well as state-run banks, reportedly came under a concerted cyberattack today.

The U.S. government, among others, has sought to neuter Russia’s options in this regard, as well as its planning for any overt intervention, by releasing a steady stream of details about intelligence assessments about these activities. There has also been a near-continuous flow of what are all but certainly authorized “leaks” that seem intended to further upend Putin’s decision-making cycle. How much this has impacted his plans is unclear.

In terms of the general prospects for de-escalation of the entire situation, Putin further reiterated today that the Kremlin still wants significant concessions from NATO, which the alliance has repeatedly rebuffed, as part of any such resolution. Meanwhile, NATO members have been increasingly deploying their own forces, including air, naval, and ground assets, along the periphery with Russia in response to the crisis. Furthermore, while the United States and other members of the alliance have said consistently that it has no plans to directly intervene in any future conflict on behalf of the government in Kyiv, they have been sending weapons, including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank guided missiles, and other military aid to Ukraine.

Those counter-moves look set to continue for the foreseeable future, no matter what happens. Late yesterday, Reuters reported that the alliance might soon announce plans to formally establish four new multi-national battle groups in southeastern Europe to help deter Russian aggression. There are already a number of similar NATO units, which are made up of rotating contingents from member states, in the Baltic region and elsewhere in northeastern Europe.

In spite of all of this, Putin could, of course, find a face-saving path to de-escalate now, at least to some degree, only re-escalate sometime later on. He has called for continued diplomacy, but he has also stressed that the Kremlin does not intend to let negotiations drag on forever if they do not appear to be in the country’s best interests.

All told, it remains to be seen whether or not Russia will actually launch a new invasion of Ukraine in the 24 to 48 hours, or even later week, as U.S. intelligence has suggested might be the case, according to multiple reports. No matter what happens, it does seem clear that the current crisis is far from over.

Update 3:55 PM EST:

U.S. President Joe Biden has made a public statement regarding the crisis surrounding Ukraine. In his remarks, which you can watch in full below, he reiterated that the U.S. government is actively pursuing all diplomatic options, including proposing new arms control and confidence-building measures, to try to defuse situation. At the same time, he has stressed that there continue to be fears that the Kremlin could launch a new invasion of Ukraine, which he said would be devastating for all parties involved. The United States, along with its allies and partners, remain prepared to take various steps, including enacting crippling sanctions against Russia, in the event of such an offensive, according to the President.

“The Russian defense minister reported today that some military units are leaving their positions near Ukraine,” Biden said of the reported Russian withdrawals today. “That would be good. We have not yet verified that. Indeed, our analysts indicate that they remain very much in a threatening position.”

Biden also warned about potential impacts from such a conflict on the United States, including increases in energy prices and the possibility of cyberattacks.

“If Russia targets Americans in Ukraine, we will respond forcefully,” biden said. “If Russia attacks the United States or allies through asymmetric means, like disruptive cyber attacks against our companies or critical infrastructure, we are prepared to respond.”

The reported cyberattacks today in Ukraine have turned out to be an apparent DDoS incident, which has now passed, and it remains unclear if that was part of any sort of coordinated attack on networks in the country.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.