L’Can Europe breathe? After weeks of high tension, Russia announced on Wednesday (February 16th) the end of military maneuvers and the departure of some of its forces from the annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, where the deployment of troops was fueling fears of an invasion by the ‘Ukraine. “The units of the Southern Military District having completed their tactical exercises on the bases of the Crimean peninsula are returning by rail to their home base”, announced the Russian Ministry of Defense, quoted by the Russian agencies.
Russian television showed nighttime images of an endless train carrying armored vehicles crossing the bridge over the Kerch Strait, built at great expense by Russia to connect Crimea to Russian territory. On Tuesday, Moscow announced a “partial” withdrawal of its soldiers deployed for weeks on the borders of Ukraine, a sign of relaxation after two months of fears about an imminent invasion of its neighbor against a backdrop of Russian-Western crisis.
Russia has not specified the extent or timing of this withdrawal. More than 100,000 soldiers are deployed, according to Westerners at the Ukrainian borders with a lot of heavy equipment. And important Russian-Belarusian maneuvers continue until February 20 in Belarus, Ukraine’s pro-Russian neighbor. Europeans and Americans are still waiting for proof of a major Russian military withdrawal.
Josep Borrell skeptical but positive
The head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, was very circumspect on Wednesday in the face of the announcement of a withdrawal of Russian forces from Crimea, stressing that it was first necessary to “verify” it. It would be, “if it were true, no doubt” a sign of relaxation, he very cautiously commented on France Inter radio. “You always have to check,” he added, however. “There are encouraging signs perhaps […]but, on the other hand, we also have worrying signs”, noted Josep Borrell in reference to a call in Russia for the recognition of the separatist territories in the east of Ukraine.
The Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, voted Tuesday an appeal to President Vladimir Putin in favor of this recognition. The Kremlin assured that there was currently “no official decision” in this direction, but that this request “reflected the opinion of the Russian population”. “Russia plays hot and cold. One day, she tells us that everything is possible, that she will return to the negotiating table, and the next she sends a squadron to the Black Sea,” continued the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs.
A trick ?
The United Kingdom will judge Russia on its “actions” not on its “words”, British Defense Minister Ben Wallace warned on Wednesday, judging an invasion of Ukraine still possible despite the announced withdrawal of Russian troops of the border.
According to the Secretary General of NATO, who sees “at this stage” no sign of de-escalation, despite statements from Moscow, Russia continues to strengthen its significant military presence on the borders with Ukraine. “We have not seen any de-escalation on the ground at this stage. On the contrary, it appears that Russia continues to strengthen its military presence. […] Russia can still invade Ukraine without notice, the capabilities are in place” with more than 100,000 troops, Jens Stoltenberg said at the start of a meeting with Alliance defense ministers in Brussels.